Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.

Notes from the Author and the Illustrator

Sacrifices

by JET

********************

Love is something you and I must have. We must have it because our spirit feeds upon it. We must have it because without it, we become weak and faint...

Without it our courage fails. Without love, we can no longer look confidently at the world. We turn inward...and little by little, we destroy ourselves. With it, we are creative. With it, we march tirelessly. With it and with it alone, we are able to sacrifice for others.

-Chief Dan George

********************

The last of his personal items in his duffel bag, Blair zipped it closed with a determined, final tug. There could be no looking back now. His mind was made up, but if he allowed himself to think about what he was leaving behind, Blair knew he would retreat like a coward from the front lines of battle.

He had to go. Lingering now would serve no purpose. It was time to leave.

Taking a last look around at his small bedroom in the loft, Blair pushed down the sad thought that the room looked so empty already. He flipped off the light switch and determinedly shut the door behind him.

If Naomi and their years of travel together had taught him anything, it was that goodbyes are not made easier by delay.

********************

Jim stood before the wide doors leading to the balcony. Ramrod straight, arms crossed defensively, Jim flinched at the sound of Blair's duffel hitting the floor by the front door. He'd known this day would come - had known it for years. Any other man would have moved on with his life long ago. Only Blair's utter devotion to his Sentinel had kept him around Cascade this long. Jim knew he should feel fortunate.

He felt only emptiness.

"Hey, man," a soft voice called, and Jim felt the warmth of Blair's hand on his shoulder.

The time had come.

Steeling his expression to reveal nothing, Jim turned to face his friend. Blair was studying his features, searching for some sign as to how Jim was really handling this day. Sheer determination allowed for a smile. "You ready, Chief?"

"Ready as I'll ever be. If that duffel weighed much more, I'm not sure I could lift it."

"You're sure I can't drive you to the airport?"

"No. Geoff's on the same flight, remember? It's on his way to swing by here and pick me up. His roommate will pick up Geoff's car from the lot later today. It's covered, man. Relax."

Was the kid's smile a little too forced? His eyes a touch too bright?

Silence hung heavy between them. Awkwardly, Blair ventured, "I really do appreciate this, Jim. I know you didn't really expect it after all this time, but..."

"It's a great opportunity for you, Chief," Jim cut him off. "I understand that. The chance to work in Africa with Dr. Stoddard for two months..." He shrugged, not trusting himself to say more.

Blair had sacrificed so much for him over the years. Hell, Sandburg should have had his doctorate years before he finally got it, but his loyalty to Jim kept him plugging away as a TA and observer to remain at his Sentinel's side. When Blair finally earned that elusive degree, it had been after the turmoil of his Sentinel research's early release, Jim's own press conference to reveal the truth about his senses, and a hell of a lot of soul-searching on both their parts.

Even after becoming a part-time member of the Rainier faculty and a paid consultant to the Cascade PD, Blair had passed on several research opportunities other professors would have walked over hot coals to have had. When Sandburg told him about the chance to work with his mentor, Eli Stoddard, for eight weeks as a professional equal on a new research project in Africa, Jim had made up his mind to be nothing but supportive.

He owed Sandburg that much. That much and a hell of a lot more.

Only a few more minutes, and the charade could end.

"Yeah, it's a huge step for me." Blair's blue eyes glowed brightly with enthusiasm as he looked up at Jim. "It'll be the first field work I've done in years, and Eli's giving me equal billing with him on all the reports and published articles. Of course, even after we get back, it'll be a lot of work. It's really a huge responsibility, Jim. Eli's one of the most respected names in the field, and he's trusting me with so much on this one. I mean, if everything pans out the way he expects, we'll be breaking some important new ground. That means major journal publications, conference presentations, maybe even a book!"

Seeing the youthful enthusiasm that had always been an integral part of Blair, enthusiasm too often absent through the years their lives had been entwined, Jim smiled. He was genuinely happy for his friend. "I'm glad, Chief. You've waited long enough for this kind of recognition. It's about time."

Sandburg's expression turned serious. "You know I've been doing exactly what I wanted to do all these years, right? Whatever sacrifices I've made, they've been willing ones, Jim."

"I know, but..." Ellison hesitated then decided to lay it all out on the table. "If you hadn't been saddled with me, Chief, there's no predicting where you would have been by now in your career. You can't tell me you don't think of that from time to time."

"Sure," Blair admitted, "I've thought about it. But you've got it all backwards, man. My ‘career' isn't being an anthropologist any more. It's being your Guide. That's number one. Anything else is secondary. I'm only taking this offer as a one-time thing because the university won't keep me if I don't conduct research and publish. 'Publish or perish' is a cliché for a reason, you know. This one expedition should keep me in relevant data for years, so really, it's a good investment - for both of us."

Blair held Jim's eyes firmly as he added, "And for the record, I've never considered myself 'saddled' with you. The Sentinel part of my life – that means you - always comes first, Jim. You know that, right?"

Reaching out, Jim ruffled his friend's curls. "Yeah, Chief. I know that." He cocked his head, listening. "That sounds like a car parking across the street. Does Geoff drive an old Chevy?"

His words were immediately followed by three short blasts of a horn. Blair grinned, shaking his head. "Mind-boggling. You still amaze me, man."

"Just part of the benefits of having your own personal Sentinel, kid." Jim placed his hand lightly on the small of Blair's back as they walked to the door. "You sure you've got everything? The spare batteries for your laptop? Your passport?"

Blair nodded. "Got it all."

Jim reached over to the small table by the door and retrieved a small envelope. "Here." He handed it to Blair.

Sandburg stared down at it. "What's this?"

Jim shrugged. "Some extra cash. I know funding's always in short supply on these things, and a lot of your last month's salary went into buying clothes and things for the trip."

Blair shook his head, holding out the envelope. "I can't take this, Jim."

"Yes, you can," Jim said firmly. "Look, Sandburg, you don't want me to worry, right?" At Blair's nod, he insisted, "Then take the money. At least I'll know you've got ample cash. That will relieve one of my overprotective, Blessed Protector, Sentinel concerns. I want to do this, Chief. Okay?"

Looking from Jim to the envelope, obviously stuffed with enough money to see Blair through a year in Africa, the younger man nodded at last. "Okay. Thanks, Jim. Really. I won't need nearly this much, so I promise I'll bring back most of it."

"Okay, you can buy me dinner when you get back." Another trio of horn blasts came from Prospect. "Sounds like your friend Geoff is getting a little tired of waiting."

"Yeah, I gotta go." Blair bent to retrieve his bags, then straightened and looked around the loft. "Man, this is harder than I thought it would be." His blue eyes turned up to Jim, and it didn't take Sentinel vision to see the sadness there.

"It'll all be here when you get back," Jim pointed out gently. "And so will I."

"I know." Blair picked up his duffel and hoisted it to one shoulder, then grabbed his carry-on bag. "You be careful, all right? Take Simon along on any long stake-outs. Remember not to focus too hard on anything. And..."

Jim laughed. "I'll be careful, Chief. I promise. Now go before Geoff sends out a search party."

Blair turned to the door. "Okay. I'll..." The bags dropped heavily to the floor.

"What? Did you forget something?" Jim looked around the loft expectantly.

"Yeah," Blair said quickly. Before Jim could react, Blair's arms were around him in a tight hug. "I'm gonna miss you."

Returning the hug warmly, Jim lowered his head to whisper in his Guide's ear. "I wouldn't want this to get around the station, but I'll miss you, too, Darwin. You take care of yourself, all right?" He heard the need in his own voice but made no attempt to disguise it.

Against his shoulder, Blair nodded. "I will. We'll e-mail, right?"

"Sure. I even remember how to open attachments, so maybe you can send some photos of what you're doing down there." Jim's hands moved randomly over the younger man's back in reassuring, comforting circles as they stood quietly. At last, Jim gently pulled Blair away, still holding him by the shoulders. "You've earned this, Blair. I want you to go and set the anthropological world on fire. Understand?"

"Yeah." Sandburg smiled up at Jim, only a trace of sadness in his eyes. "Thanks, Jim."

Reaching beneath the heavy curls, Jim squeezed Blair's neck. "Now go on and get out of here. Eli's expecting you, and I don't want to be responsible if you miss your flight."

Sacrifices 1

With a quick wave and a grin, Blair was gone.

"See you in eight weeks, Chief," Jim said quietly as he tracked Geoff's car en route to the airport. "I'm holding you to that promise to be careful."

********************

Jim,

Got here fine. Camp's pretty basic but comfortable. We're about seventy-five miles from the closest town, but Eli's organized, as usual, so we shouldn't have to make a supply run for a while. Miles out here take on a whole new meaning than back in Cascade. But it's just Eli, Geoff, and me, so we can be pretty conservative in our use of food, water, etc. Tomorrow I jump in with both feet, but today, we're just settling in and resting up from the long flight. You okay? Don't get behind on your reports just 'cause I'm not there to keep up with them, okay? Talk to you tomorrow.

Blair

********************

Jim,

Two weeks and we're making some major progress at last. We've been working with the Umbawe tribe, and like I've told you, they're not accustomed to outsiders. Eli's great with them, though, and they respect him as an elder. Geoff and I are having a little harder time of it, but I think they'll come around. They have some fascinating customs and traditions, and the high chief is opening up to us more every day. I want to talk to their shaman. You know how interested I am in certain aspects of spirituality.

Tell Simon and everybody hello for me. Sometimes get so caught up in what I'm doing that I forget how far away from home I am. Then I lie awake at night and remember and wonder how everyone is. Is Daryl passing his chemistry class? Is Joel sticking to that new diet? Are you okay?

Are you okay, Jim? Your e-mails don't tell me much, you know. Typical Ellison stuff - few words and secretive. C'mon, man, give me a clue here. I worry about you.

Blair

********************

Jim,

Thanks for the info in your last note. Joel's given up the diet. Daryl got a B. You're alive. What is it with you, Ellison? I'm thousands of miles away, and the most you tell me is that you're. What's okay? Are your senses cutting up on you at all? Are you really using them or just keeping them dialed down most of the time? I want substance here, man!!

I miss you.

Blair

********************

Jim,

Good to hear you're really all right. I appreciate the details. Nice to hear I'm missed. Thanks.

Not too much to say right now. Work's proceeding well. Got some fascinating stuff. Just staying tired all the time. Must be the heat.

Kinda have a headache. A little achy. Do they have the flu in Africa this time of year? Geoff's covering for me tonight. Think I'll turn in.

Blair

********************

The wolf limped painfully through the jungle, looking back over its shoulder every few steps. The hunter never allowed the animal out of its sight, tracking the wounded wolf easily through the dense forest. Small red droplets, still warm, marked the wolf's path, making it even easier to trail the animal.

Following them both was the jaguar, black as midnight on a moonless eve. Its green eyes glowed dangerously, glinting in the dark jungle as emeralds sparkle beneath a jeweler's shining light. The animal was desperate, needing to reach the wolf, to protect it from the hunter, but the task seemed impossible. No matter how fast the big cat ran, somehow he was always left far behind.

The jaguar could hear the panting wolf ahead, could smell its fear. The hunter was gaining on its prey, and the jaguar sensed that it would be only a matter of time before the hunter had a clear shot. The crossbow hanging around the hunter's broad back was lethal, and there was no doubt that this hunter knew exactly how to use it.

The wolf whined in pain. The sound cut through the jungle, reaching the jaguar's ears easily. In the sound, the jaguar heard the growing weakness of the wolf. There was no way the animal would be able to outwit or outrun the hunter alone. Without help, the wolf would surely die. The black feline picked up its pace.

********************

Jim hit the icon to open his e-mail window with a frustrated sigh. Three days and not a word from Sandburg. The kid had some nerve. Pumping Jim for details about work, their friends, and especially his senses, laying on the guilt in a major way, then not answering his mail for days. Where did he get off, letting Jim know he wasn't feeling well, then disappearing completely?

Surely there would be a note from Blair this morning. If not, he fully intended to fire off a mail to Sandburg and lay down the law. It didn't matter how busy they were with the Anaconda tribe or whoever the hell it was they were studying. Blair had enough time to write and let his worried Sentinel know he was all right.

Then there was the nightmare. The same damned dream every night for the last week. It never varied, although Jim longed to discover how the dream would end. The wolf was hurt, being tracked through the jungle by an untiring hunter, determined to slay it. The panther trailed them both, desperately trying to catch up, but never making much progress, despite its determination to find and save the wolf.

Jim had too much experience with visions and dreams to miss the meaning of this one. Blair was in trouble, and he needed to find him. The only problem was, he didn't have a clue what was going on down in Africa. What if this vision wasn't a warning about something happening now? What if it had something to do with the more distant future?

Jim cursed the fact that Sentinels didn't come equipped with manuals to help interpret the visions and dreams that were apparently part of the job description. That was Sandburg's job, after all, and he wasn't there to interpret.

The window opened, and Jim quickly scanned the list of mail. All spam. Except for the last subject, entitled Blair.

It was from Eli Stoddard.

The connection was frustratingly slow. As the computer whirred, Jim stared at the blank screen, running through all the possibilities as to why Dr. Stoddard would be writing to him about Blair. None of the options he came up with were good.

At last, the mail opened, and as Jim read, his heart sank lower as the meaning of the visions became clear.

********************

Detective Ellison,

I know it's a surprise to hear from me rather than Blair. He asked me to write to you as he realized you would be very worried after not hearing from him for several days. I will try to fill you in on his condition.

Three days ago, Blair began feeling badly. It started with a headache, which increased daily in its severity. A high fever followed, along with nausea and chills. At first, we tried to treat his condition here with the help of the medicine woman of the Umbawe. There has been no improvement. His fever is hovering around 104 degrees and nothing we try seems to bring it down.

Blair has been in and out of consciousness for the past six hours. As soon as it is light, we will transport him to Mamoban, the nearest town with a hospital. It is approximately ninety miles from our location, so please do not be concerned if you don't hear from me for quite some time. I promise I will be in contact by e-mail or perhaps by phone, as soon as possible.

Blair is awake now and asking me to give you a message from him. He says he's sorry to worry you, but please don't be too concerned. He'll call you from the hospital in Mamoban himself as soon as he can.

I think I should also let you know that he's been calling for you in the delirium of his fever. I know he cares for you a great deal, Detective Ellison. Actually, I think he's more worried about you for some reason that for himself right now. I promise you I'll take good care of him, and that we'll let you know something once he's in the hospital and under proper care.

Eli Stoddard

********************

That was all.

Jim slumped back in his chair, staring at the words. He checked the time in the lower right corner of the screen and compared it with the time on Eli's mail. Five hours. By now, they were surely en route to the hospital in Mamoban, wherever the hell that was.

How were they traveling? By Jeep, probably. Were the roads decent or was Blair being bounced around like a sack of potatoes? For that matter, what kind of hospital - what kind of doctors - would a place like that have? Would they have a clue what was wrong with Blair? Would they have the medicines, the expertise, to help him?

To save him?

Jim's throat tightened painfully. Saving Blair...that was really what this was all about. He could read between the lines of Eli's carefully chosen words. Blair was sick. Dangerously sick. A fever of 104 was not to be treated lightly, even in the best of conditions. In the middle of nowhere...

He forced his mind to focus on the practical. Jim's first instinct was to head immediately to the airport, catch a flight anywhere in the vicinity of middle Africa and find his Guide by whatever means necessary. As he worked out the plan in his head, Jim's right hand clenched and released again and again in frustration. But what if he made it to Mamoban only to find that they'd transported Blair to a larger city, a better hospital? Or that he'd been airlifted home o the States? It might take days longer to get to Blair than if he'd just waited in Cascade.

As much as he hated the thought, for the time being, Blair's fate rested in the hands of another - of Eli Stoddard. Jim knew Dr. Stoddard thought highly of Sandburg, and in the few times he'd met the man, Stoddard had impressed Jim as a capable, kind teacher. Certainly, Stoddard would take the best care of Sandburg possible given the circumstances.

It was those very circumstances that worried Jim.

********************

"So that's where we stand," Simon finished. "We expect the shipment to come in tonight, sometime after midnight. Jim, you, Henri and Rafe will cover the warehouse. Joel and I will watch the docks. We'll stay in contact via..."

"No, sir."

Simon focused his attention on Jim. "Do you see a problem with the plan, Jim?"

Ellison had been distracted the entire meeting. They'd started reviewing the Fishman case at about 3:00, and now that it was almost 4:30, Jim's restlessness had become almost tangible. Now, the experienced detective and former Army captain apparently had found something wrong with Simon's plan for that night's stakeout. Simon respected Jim's organizational abilities, his uncanny sense of what would or would not work in a given situation. If Jim saw a problem, Simon wanted to know more.

"No, sir, not with the plans for the stake-out, Captain. I just mean that I can't be on duty tonight."

Three other sets of eyes turned to Simon. Rafe shifted uncomfortably in his chair, while Henri cleared his throat. Joel merely bided his time, obviously interested in Simon's response.

Biting back a sharper retort, Simon pointed out, "I don't recall making this particular field trip optional, Detective. I need every one of you on watch tonight. This is a major shipment of narcotics we're talking about here."

Jim's gaze held firm, a sea of steely blue resolve. "I'm sorry, sir, but I can't be there."

Simon's eyes narrowed. "May I ask for an explanation? Hell, forget asking. What's going on, Jim?"

"It's personal, sir."

That did it. Sometimes, he just got so damned frustrated with Jim's strong, silent type façade. How the hell did Sandburg put up with the man almost 24/7? Just as Simon was about to order Jim to give a full and detailed explanation, Joel spoke up calmly.

"Captain, if Jim's refusing to be on duty tonight, I figure there's gotta be a good reason." He shifted to look directly at Jim. "Does it have something to do with Blair?"

The stoic face softened, just a fraction, but it was enough for Simon to glimpse the pain in Jim's eyes. "Yeah," he admitted. "It does."

Of course. Simon berated himself for not having figured it out himself. Blair was gone, out of the Sentinel's sight and away from his protection. If something had happened to Sandburg, it was bound to be tearing at the powerful instinct Ellison had to protect the younger man.

"Jim?" Simon spoke softly, as a friend now rather than commanding officer. "What's happened?"

As Jim explained, Simon felt his own concern rapidly growing, and he could see similar concern on the faces of the other men gathered around the conference table in his office. Sandburg had become one of them over the years, and every man in the room shared Jim's concern for his well-being.

"So," Jim finished, spreading his palms helplessly, "that's all I know right now. That stake-out is likely to last all night and into the morning. Until I hear something, I have to stay near a computer, sir. I have to be able to check for any word from Eli...or Blair."

Taking off his glasses, Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose to relieve some of the pressure he felt building behind his eyes. "Right. That's understandable, Jim. Truthfully, I'm surprised you're still here, not on some flight to Africa."

The indecision in Jim's voice was clear. "Yeah, I considered that. I figured that it was just as likely they'd move him to better facilities or even get him on a flight back here before I could get there. For the time being, I decided it might be better to stay put." Ellison shook his head slowly. "I don't know though. I still haven't heard a word. Maybe I should have gone, left earlier today..."

"Don't second guess yourself, Jim," Rafe pointed out. "You'll hear. Surely this Dr. Stoddard will let you know something soon."

Jim's smile belied the hurt in his eyes. "He will. Eli's a good man. He'll take care of Blair as best he can given the circumstances. I just wish I knew what was happening."

Simon glanced at his watch. "We've been in here quite a while. Come on and use my computer. Check your mail."

Nodding, Jim got up and moved to Simon's computer. As the keys clicked, he said, "Probably nothing yet. I looked right before we got started and..." Jim fell silent, his face a mask, revealing nothing as he read.

"Jim?" Simon asked, moving to his desk to stand behind Jim. When there was no response, he took Jim's silence as permission and began reading over his shoulder.

He felt nausea rising as he read. Simon placed a supportive hand on Jim's shoulder and squeezed. Looking at the three concerned faces waiting on them, he shook his head slightly. "It's not good," Simon said softly. "Blair went into cardiac arrest twice, but they brought him back. They've got him stabilized enough for transport. He'll be on a flight arriving at midnight."

Jim was staring blindly at the screen, and for a moment, Simon feared he'd zoned. Then, the Sentinel added, "The doctors there couldn't help him. He's..." Jim's voice broke, and Simon squeezed his shoulders again, then the captain picked up the thread, reading over Jim's shoulder.

"He's contracted a virus, a fever similar to rheumatic fever. His pre-trip vaccinations should have prevented it, but apparently, something wasn't quite right with the shots he received. He was so far from medical help when he got sick that the high fever had already done a lot of damage by the time they got him to the hospital. The medicines they gave him have pretty much taken care of the virus, but it's the aftereffects of the fever they're concerned about."

"Aftereffects?" Rafe questioned. "Like what?"

Simon scanned the e-mail again. "Dr. Stoddard doesn't give any details. Just that Blair's still very sick and that his situation is critical."

Rafe nodded then he looked to Henri. "We can handle tonight at the warehouse, right, partner?"

"Yeah," Henri confirmed. "You just take care of Sandburg, Jim. We can hold down the fort."

Simon nodded in confirmation. Jim would be no good to them tonight in his state of mind. "I'll bring up Byrd from vice. He's worked with us before. He'll cover for you for a while, Jim. Listen, I have to be there tonight for this operation. Is there anyone I can call for you? Do you know where Naomi is?"

Jim shook his head. Simon recognized the stunned look of disbelief. "No. Not yet. I don't want to contact anyone until I know something more. I'll get him settled at Cascade General and see what the doctors say. Then, I can try to locate Naomi."

"Look, Jim," Simon pointed out, "it's still almost six hours until their flight is due. Let me drive you home, and you try to get some sleep. There's nothing you can do right now, and once Sandburg's here, you won't want to leave the hospital. The best thing you can do is try to sleep for a while now - while you can."

There was no protest from the Sentinel. Jim nodded twice, slowly, then he got up stiffly from Simon's desk chair. "I can drive, sir. I'll be fine."

Something in Jim's demeanor convinced Simon that any attempt to insist on someone driving him home would meet with stiff resistance. "All right," he conceded. "I'll check in with you when I can tonight." He hesitated. "Listen, Jim, we're all so sorry..."

With a quick wave, Jim cut him off as he headed quickly to the door. "Thanks. He's going to be fine. I'll see you all tomorrow."

********************

He tossed and turned until way into the evening but sleep eluded him. Simon had been right. Sleep would have been useful, but there was the small matter of turning off his brain long enough to get that much-needed rest. His thoughts kept returning to Sandburg, conjuring up images of his partner, sick and feverish, calling his name in a strange, faraway place.

He should have been there.

As illogical as it was, that one thought kept drumming over and over through Jim's head as he lay in his bed, struggling with sleep.

Blair was his Guide, and he should have been with him.

Giving up on the remote possibility that he could rest, Jim threw off the covers and put on his soft robe. Tying it around his waist, he jogged downstairs.

The clock on the microwave read 9:00. Three more hours. By the time he had something to eat, gathered some things in a bag so he could stay at the hospital with Sandburg, and got to the airport, the timing should be about right.

Jim put on some leftover chili to heat. He wandered into the living room but stopped at the door to Blair's room. The familiar scent of his Guide was strong, and Jim's heart constricted. He stared at the haphazard mess that Blair had left behind.

Moving over to the bed, Jim tugged half-heartedly at the covers. "You're a slob, kid, you know that?" He spotted a small yellow sheet of paper tucked beneath Blair's scrunched up pillow. Curious, he pulled it out.

A smile battled with tears for dominance as he read Blair's hurriedly written note:

Jim,

Out of my room, man! I know you would love to clean up this mess, but it's MY mess, remember? Anyway, I'll be back in just 8 weeks, so I know you can live with it that long. Close the door and forget about it, okay?

Just don't forget about me...

Be careful, and I'll see you soon.

Blair

"Forget about you?" Jim muttered, folding the note carefully and slipping it into his robe's deep pocket. "Not in this lifetime, Chief. Or the next."

Letting his hand rest for a moment on the pillow that still bore the ghost of Blair's head, Jim shut his eyes. Then he left the small room, leaving the door open behind him.

********************

"There must be a flight coming in from Africa sometime tonight," Jim insisted, rapidly losing patience with the clerk's stubborn insistence that no flights arriving from the Dark Continent were expected.

"I've checked all the major airlines, sir, and..."

"Then check the minor ones! He didn't say which one they were taking. Check everything. Please." Jim hoped the touch of civility would help. Apparently it did, because the reservations clerk began checking his computer once again.

"Yes, here..." The young man looked up. "But it's a private jet, sir."

Jim was momentarily uncertain. "Private? Owned by...?"

"Wilkinson Industries. There's a note here that it's an emergency flight - a medical emergency. It's due to land at midnight and there's an ambulance scheduled to meet it once it's on the ground."

"What gate?"

"Gate 24."

"Thank you." Jim checked his watch as he strode down the concourse. After the delay in locating the flight, he only had thirty minutes left.

********************

The sleek silver jet descended from the heavy clouds and gracefully roared down the runway. Jim had a clear view, and it was only when the Lear was turning toward the terminal that he approached the young woman attending the gate. "They're on their way in. May I go down now?"

It had taken a long look at his badge, a call to Cascade PD headquarters, and confirmation over her phone that this was indeed a 'good Samaritan' flight to convince the woman that Jim wasn't some terrorist trying to get onto the tarmac. She nodded and escorted Jim to where the Lear was already pulled to a halt. The ambulance crew was hustling toward them with a stretcher.

Steps floated down from the side of the Lear. Eli Stoddard climbed stiffly to the ground. Jim ran to greet him.

"Eli? How is he?"

The professor looked ten years older than when Jim had last seen him. "Dr. Hatha is bringing him down now. He made it through the flight," Stoddard added, as if that would reassure Jim.

"Hatha?"

"A young doctor who happened to be at the hospital. He was coming home to the States anyway and volunteered to come with us to keep an eye on Blair."

Jim's eyes remained fixed on the Lear's door. He monitored the voices inside and could hear footsteps nearing the stairs to come down. "And the jet?"

"I made some calls," Eli said vaguely. "Wilkinson Industries was doing some business in the capital city. Mr. Wilkinson remembered what you and Blair did for him some years back and volunteered the use of his jet. I'm not sure we would have made it back in time without it."

"In time?" Jim's voice caught on the tightness in his throat.

Eli looked at him sadly. "I fear the situation is grave. Three times, I thought we'd lost Blair. The fever was so high, and he was so weak. I don't know that he could have lived through several connecting flights to get back here."

There was a commotion in the doorway of the plane as a stretcher was eased slowly down the stairs, one man at each end. Jim stopped himself at the end of the stairs, waiting impatiently.

"They're doing everything they can for him," Eli said softly from beside him. "We all did everything we could."

Jim nodded blindly, unable to see anything but the pale face on the stretcher. The Sentinel automatically tuned in to his Guide's heart, and his breath caught in this chest. Something was terribly wrong.

At last, the men eased the stretcher to the ground. "I'm Dr. Hatha..."

Jim ignored the hand reaching toward him, leaning instead over the still body covered by green sheets on the narrow stretcher. "Blair? Can you hear me?"

Tired eyes opened slowly, their lids swollen and red. "J...Jim...?" A tiny smiled curved the corners of Blair's chapped and broken lips as his hand weakly rose upward from beneath the covers.

"Hey, partner," Jim whispered, catching his hand and holding on. The straps binding Blair to the stretcher hadn't included his lower arms, but his upper arms were held firmly at his side. "Welcome home."

Blair nodded once. "Good to see you, man."

Jim smoothed back a stray curl from Blair's forehead, leaving his hand atop his friend's head. "It's good to see you, too. You had me worried, Chief."

Sacrifices 2

The EMR tech waiting behind Jim broke in. "We need to transport. Dr. Hatha, will you be going to deliver the films and reports to the attending at Cascade General?"

Jim didn't hear the rest of the conversation. In a few seconds he would be forced to once again turn his Guide over to others for his care. Bending down low, Jim whispered, "You hang in there, do you hear me, Blair?"

The doubt mixed with regret in Blair's eyes was horrible to behold. "I'll try," he whispered back, squeezing Jim's hand weakly. "It's just...not good, Jim."

What the hell was Sandburg trying to tell him? The weakness and trembling in the hand holding his, the sadness in the familiar blue eyes, the doubt in Blair's voice spoke all too clearly of resignation. Sure, he'd had a rough time, but Blair was home now. He was going to a first rate hospital to recover.

Everything would be fine.

Wouldn't it?

No question. Blair would recover. He had to. No other alternative was acceptable.

An instant later, he was displaced from Blair's side as the medical workers took over. He felt Eli's hand on his arm, but his attention was focused only on Sandburg.

"Jim? Jim?" Eli raised his voice, capturing his attention at last. "We can't ride in the ambulance. Where are you parked?"

As Blair was loaded into the waiting ambulance, Jim acknowledged the professor's question. "Out front. Let's go. I'll drive."

********************

The examination and discussion of Sandburg's case seemed to go on forever. Dr. Hatha had been led away immediately to confer with the covey of doctors who flocked around the patient the moment his stretcher came through the door. In an attempt to follow, Jim made it through the doors marked 'No Admittance', but Eli convinced him to listen to the charge nurse and wait in the waiting area.

That had been a couple of hours ago.

"What the hell is taking so long?" Jim muttered for the tenth time since they'd taken up their positions in the hard plastic waiting room chairs.

He'd run Eli off already. The older man had been exhausted, barely able to stay awake. Jim had promised to call if there were any changes.

So he waited alone.

That was as it should be. The danger to Sandburg was too personal, too potentially devastating, to be shared with even good friends like Eli or Simon. For now, Jim was thankful to wait in the deserted room by himself, alone with his fears.

A good portion of Jim's life had been spent alone. Before Sandburg, he'd never thought of living life any other way. Marriage certainly hadn't worked for him, and at his age, a roommate was a joke. Until Blair...

And now the thought of living his life without the younger man at his side was unbearable. Sandburg had to get better. He had to.

The hour hand on the metal clock positioned slightly off-center above the door had just hit four a.m. when a figure in a white coat appeared. "Detective Ellison?"

Jim scrambled to his feet. "I'm Jim Ellison."

"I'm Zachary Ryan. I'm heading up the team working on Dr. Sandburg."

"The team?"

Dr. Ryan glanced around the waiting room with obvious distaste. In his late forties, Jim judged from the salt and pepper hair and the deep creases around his brown eyes. With an obvious athlete's build and standing a few inches taller than Jim, Ryan struck Jim as the kind of guy he was glad was on Blair's side. He trusted this man immediately, and in Jim's life, that didn't happen often.

Ryan smiled. "Look, this isn't the best of places to talk. Feel like stepping into my office? We really need to go over a few things."

Jim agreed and followed the doctor down the hall and into a comfortable, but unpretentious, office. Paneled in dark oak, and featuring bookcases crammed with text and reference books, a couple of brass floor lamps added a warm glow to the room. Jim eased into an overstuffed chair across from Dr. Ryan's desk. Instead of taking his place behind the big desk, Ryan settled into the chair next to Jim. Again, Jim decided he liked the man.

Ryan regarded him for a moment thoughtfully. "Blair - Dr. Sandburg - feels very close to you. I always try to find out as much as possible about my patients before we get too far into their treatment. When I offered to contact family for him, he just asked if you were here. When I said that you were, he murmured that you were all he needed. I believe he meant that literally as well as figuratively."

"We are close," Jim answered carefully. "Blair works with me at the department. He's also my roommate and closest friend."

The doctor nodded. "Good. He's going to need someone who'll be there for him during the difficult days ahead. He's decided not to call in his mother at this time, so I'm glad you seem willing to be his family right now."

"I am his family," Jim said bluntly. "Please, tell me what's going on."

Patiently, Dr. Ryan began. "Blair was infected with a very rare bacteria while in Africa. It spreads quickly and attacks viciously. The shots he received before leaving the U.S. should have protected him, but for some reason, he was left at the bacteria's mercy."

"This particular strain of bacteria causes symptoms that are extremely virulent. His fever hovered around 104 for days, sometimes spiking even higher. The bacteria itself began attacking the various systems of his body, and he experienced severe pain and nausea as a result. The body cannot cope with such an attack for a sustained period without sustaining damage."

Fighting to take it all in and make sense of what he was hearing, Jim asked, "Damage? What kind of damage are we talking about?"

Ryan sighed. "First, you should know that the bacteria itself has been eradicated. They followed the proper protocol down in Africa, starting Blair on infusions of the most powerful antibiotics at their disposal. That alone saved his life and may have kept the damage from being widespread. As it is, we're looking at major damage to two areas..." The doctor's voice faded away, and his gaze fell from Jim's for the first time.

"And they are...?" Jim prompted, dreading hearing the truth, yet needing to know at the same time.

Again, Ryan met his eyes. "First, his kidneys have all but shut down. I'd hoped they might resume functioning, but it just doesn't appear that's going to happen."

Jim swallowed hard. "So what will you do?"

"We'll get him on dialysis tomorrow. However, in his weakened condition, that's not going to present a viable long-term solution. We can only hope it will keep him going long enough for a transplant."

"Transplant?" Jim croaked. Oh, God. This couldn't be happening.

Ryan nodded. "They are very successful. With any luck at all, an appropriate donor kidney can be found. I already have his name on the list and..."

"How long does it usually take?"

"There's no way to know. Frankly, in this country, we're always in need of donated organs. On any given day, approximately 40,000 people are waiting for a donated kidney. Every fifteen minutes, a new name is added to the waiting list. What's sad is that people die every day without having signed a donation consent card, and their perfectly useful organs - kidneys, hearts, corneas... - go with them to the grave. All the while, those patients whose lives would be saved may die because there just weren't enough organs to go around. In this country, between twelve to fourteen people die while waiting for a transplant."

Jim shook his head. "Not Blair..."

"We're hopeful," Dr. Ryan assured him. "In his condition, he's right at the top of the list, and these transplants have a very high success rate - about 80 - 97%. Also, we need to run tests on any friends and relatives willing to consider becoming a living donor."

Reeling, Jim asked, "Living donor?"

"A person can survive with only one kidney. If we don't find an appropriate donor through conventional channels, a willing donor might be found among Dr. Sandburg's friends or family."

"He has a world of friends," Jim murmured. Then he remembered with something the doctor had said earlier. "You said two areas were damaged."

Ryan hesitated. "Yes..."

"Tell me," Jim said quietly, fighting to control the fear building inside of him. If Ryan had saved the really bad news for last...

"It's his heart."

Jim shut his eyes, tilting his head back. "No..."

"As you know, the heart is a muscle. The fever, combined with the bacteria in his body, damaged a substantial portion of his heart muscle, rendering it useless. I'm somewhat hopeful that the remaining healthy portion of his heart will be able to sustain his life, much as people are able to live for years with the majority of their arteries blocked."

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. "And if not..."

"We're looking at another transplant."

"A heart transplant?" Jim croaked, his voice all but failing. "You'd take out his heart and give him someone else's?"

"A healthy donor organ," Dr. Ryan said gently. "We've had much greater success with these transplants in recent years. The damage to other areas of his body - to other organs - appears minimal, based on the tests we've run tonight. With any luck, his body would accept the donor tissue and he could have a relatively normal life. There would be anti-rejection drugs, follow-up tests, and a donor heart probably won't buy him his full life-expectancy. It's not a perfect solution, but it does hold out hope."

Jim opened his eyes and stared at Ryan. "But that...the heart transplant...may not be needed."

Dr. Ryan shrugged. "We just don't know yet. I hope not. But you needed to know that the possibility is there."

"Does Blair know all this?"

"Of course. I've already covered everything with him. He asked me to explain it all to you. Said he didn't know if he could get through that."

Jim nodded. "May I see him?"

Ryan stood up and opened his office door. "Of course. He's in a regular room now. I've already given orders that you may stay as long as you'd like. I'm a firm believer in the power of family and friends to pull a patient through the tough times. It seems to me, Detective, that you're about as good a friend as any patient could ask for."

********************

Jim slipped into room 609, pulling the heavy door closed quietly behind him. The room was semi-darkened with only the eerie green lights of the numerous machines connected to the patient providing light. His training as a medic combined with his experience as the Sentinel of a trouble-prone Guide allowed him to take in the readings on the machines quickly. For now, at least, Sandburg was in no immediate danger.

Quietly, Jim moved the only chair in the room from the corner closer to the single bed. He eased down, studying Blair's face. He was much too thin, very pale, and dark circles were etched beneath his eyes. Jim swallowed hard and leaned forward as he focused his hearing on the beating of his partner's heart. While the beat sounded regular enough, there was something...off... about it.

No! He must be imagining it, letting what Dr. Ryan had told him play tricks with his hearing. Blair's heart was normal. Perfect. He wouldn't let it be otherwise.

Determined, Jim focused harder on the sound of his friend's heart. As much as he longed to discover that he was right, that he'd merely imagined the abnormality he thought he'd heard, Jim soon had to surrender to the truth.

"Ahhh, Blair," he breathed. "Damn it, kid."

Jim listened for another few minutes, struggling to fit the new, unfamiliar sound with his Guide.

"Hey," a soft voice called. "You okay, Jim? Don't zone on me right now, man. I'm not real sure I'm up to bringing you back."

Jim dialed back his hearing and switched his focus from the disturbing heartbeat to his friend's teasing voice. Blair actually sounded almost normal.

Forcing a smile, Jim pulled the chair closer. "Hey, Chief. Thought you were asleep."

Blair reached up and tugged his pillow higher. "Raise my head a little, would you?"

Carefully, Jim manipulated the controls on the side of the bed rail so the head of the bed raised upward. "You warm enough?" he asked.

"Yeah. For once."

Lowering the rail, Jim perched on the side of the bed. "Chief, I..." Looking down into the expressive blue eyes, words failed him. "I...I don't know what to say. I'm so damned sorry about all this."

"Hey, man. There's no way you can shoulder the blame for this one, so don't even try. This is not your fault," Blair said forcefully, staring intently into Jim's eyes. "Got that? It's not your fault."

Jim scrubbed his eyes quickly with his fists. Damn, he was tired. Wearily, he shook his head. "I'm not so sure. I should have been there..."

"Damn it, Jim, we're not joined at the hip! You have your life, and I have mine. Sure, they intersect at lots of points, but still, I do have a career that's totally separate from the department. You have interests I don't share. There was absolutely no reason for you to go with me, and even if you had, there wasn't a thing you could have done to prevent my getting sick."

Jim's first instinct was to pull back, but just as he started to stand up, Blair reached out and clasped Jim's hand in his. "I don't need you pulling an Ellison emotional disappearing act on me right now, understand? That's how you usually handle your guilt, right? Withdraw and pull into your shell. Well, that just won't fly here, Jim."

His voice, already weak, faltered. "I need you. Probably more than I've ever needed you. Can you handle that? If you can't, then I need to know now."

Jim stared at Blair. The last thing he'd expected had been a lecture from his seriously ill Guide. He felt the small hairs on the back of his neck bristle, a sure sign of impending anger. Forcing himself to take a few slow breaths, Jim thought about what Blair had just said. He'd made some valid points. "You're right, Blair. This isn't time for a guilt trip, and there wasn't anything I could have done if I had been there. What we've got to do is focus on getting you well."

Blair's hand tightened around his, and Jim could feel the strange rhythm of his Guide's heart in his pulse. "Dr. Ryan told me everything. You know, too. I may not..."

"No." Jim shook his head firmly. "Don't you dare say it."

"But Jim, we've gotta face facts here. If I die, then..."

"Stop it!" Jim snapped out the order, knowing he was being a jerk for barking at a sick man. But he would let Blair talk that way. He couldn't give up, not when there was so damned much at stake. "We're a long way from that. They're starting dialysis with you tomorrow..."

"Which is only a temporary fix."

How the hell was Sandburg staying so calm? "Then we do the transplant. Dr. Ryan's not giving up, Chief, and I sure as hell won't give up on you."

Patiently, Blair said quietly, "I'm not giving up, man. I just want you prepared for the worst. I...I'm not feeling well at all, Jim. There's something not right inside...with my heart...with my body...I'm feeling really strange, and it scares me."

What could he say to that? Looking into those emotion-drenched pools of blue, there was no room for anything less than the truth. "I'm scared, too, Junior. But you're a courageous man. I've seen that courage too many times. We've got options here, so until those options are exhausted, we don't give up the fight. That's all I'm asking, Chief. Just keep fighting, keep hanging on, until we find what works. Can you do that? For yourself? For me?"

Their eyes locked, Blair was silent for a long time. Jim could see the soul-searching that was taking place within his tired, sick, and discouraged Guide. At last, Blair said quietly, "I was just trying to hold on long enough to make it back here, to see you again. Then I figured I could let go. Then something began to help - the antibiotics, I guess - and the fever went down. I started to believe I might be okay. But tonight, Dr. Ryan told me about my kidneys and my heart, and I wasn't so sure any more."

"And now?" Jim asked, resting one hand on the slim shoulder beneath the hospital gown. Never known to fit properly, the gown had slipped slightly, so his hand rested halfway on Blair's cool bare skin.

"Now you're here." Blair grinned, and that smile looked so much like the old Blair that it tore at Jim's soul. "You have this way of inspiring the best in people, you know? The best in me. Now, I'm thinking maybe, just maybe, I'll make it through after all."

Relief flooded Jim, and his answering smile was warm. "Good. You hold on to that feeling, okay?"

Blair nodded.

Jim brought up a subject he'd tried to avoid. "We need to try to find your mother. Any idea where she might be?"

Blair shook his head. "No. She called right before I left. As far as she knows, I'm still in Africa. I doubt I'll hear from her anytime soon."

Inwardly, Jim cursed Blair's free-spirited, Peter Pan mother. It's all well and good to choose never to grow up, Naomi. Works out just great for you, but Blair could use you now, and you're nowhere to be found. You might just be the donor he needs, and you're off on some mountaintop looking for spiritual enlightenment!

"It's just her way, man," Blair said softly. "Don't be mad."

Seeing the tired eyes blink rapidly in an obvious effort to remain open, Jim's frustration with Naomi faded. "I'll try some of her friends' numbers, just in case someone knows where she is. Don't worry about it. You need to rest. You've had a rough few days."

He stood up, adjusting the covers high on Sandburg's chest for warmth. "You comfortable? Need anything?"

"Sip of water?"

Finding the small plastic pitcher next to the bed, Jim poured a little into a cup, inserted a straw, and held it to his partner's lips. Blair sipped some, then leaned back heavily into the bed, as if that small effort had completely exhausted him. "Thanks," he said sleepily. "Go home. Get some rest yourself."

Putting the cup back on the rolling table beside Blair, Jim said casually, "Maybe later. I went back to the loft and napped while you were flying in. I'm fine right here."

Apparently Sandburg either bought the lie or he was too tired to argue. Nodding slightly, his eyes slowly closed. " 'kay, Jim. Think I'll...rest a...little now."

Easing back into his chair next to Blair's bedside, Jim said softly, "I'll be right here, Chief."

Blair's body twitched slightly, and Jim knew sleep was already claiming him for what remained of the night. Leaning back in the thinly padded chair, the Sentinel began the first of what he knew would be many vigils over his sleeping Guide.

********************

The next morning, Jim settled into the chair across from Dr. Ryan's desk. When the doctor had requested a meeting with him, a meeting that would not include Blair, Jim's anxiety had increased. Now that their meeting was at hand, he faced it with mixed emotions. Perhaps the news would be good, but he couldn't quite fathom the reason for excluding Blair, if that was the case.

He didn't want to consider the remaining alternative.

As Ryan entered the room, Jim took his measure and confirmed the opinion he'd already formed. He liked the man. Ryan appeared to be a competent physician, genuinely caring about his patient's health. Plus, he seemed to understand Jim's concern for Blair...and his fear.

Ryan settled into his chair, leaning back, a man at ease in his world. Jim caught the concerned look in the doctor's eyes. "It's time we start asking Blair's friends and relatives to be tested as possible donors."

"You've given up on finding a donor?"

"No, not at all. Dialysis will buy us some time. A living donor may not be necessary in Blair's case, but I'd like to do the lab work early. See if we can find a willing donor. Then, if a cadaver donor organ cannot be located, we'll be ready to proceed and not waste valuable time. Time that might mean the difference between life and death for Blair."

"What's the first step?" Jim's words were clipped and efficient. This was no time for pleasantries, and both men realized it.

"Get on the phone. Contact everyone you know who might be a match and be willing to donate. Remember, it's not an easy thing you're asking. It's major surgery, and there are definite risks. Those who are willing need to get to the hospital immediately for the blood work. Does he have relatives nearby?"

Naomi. He'd tried all the numbers he had for her friends the evening before and during the morning, but the search had been fruitless. No one knew a thing about Naomi's whereabouts. There was zero chance she was close enough to make a difference at this point.

"No. Nobody close by."

"Okay. Then round up any volunteers you can. Have them report to the outpatient lab on the first floor. All they need to tell the receptionist is that they're there for the Sandburg testing."

"Do we tell him?"

Dr. Ryan smiled. "You know him best. What do you think?"

No point considering that question. "Not yet. He would hate the idea, and right now, I don't think he needs anything else to worry about. If we find a living donor and it comes down to that, we'll tell him then." After considering Blair's reaction to the news that a friend was sacrificing a part of his body to save his life, Jim added, "If we have to. It would probably be easier for everyone if he never knew exactly how he got his transplant."

********************

A few hours later, the long days of treatment, tests, and waiting began. Blair's first dialysis went well, and Jim grew hopeful. If Blair's weakened body tolerated the artificial cleansing of dialysis long enough, surely a suitable donated kidney could be found.

Simon and Daryl arrived while Blair was going through his first dialysis session, one that would last longer than normal as the process was explained to Sandburg. Jim had gone downstairs to the cafeteria for an early lunch, determined to be back in Blair's room to greet his friend when he returned.

"The nurse said we'd find you here," Simon greeted Jim as he and Daryl brought their trays to the table for four by the window where Jim was already eating. Daryl's plate was piled high with the thick gooey pizza that was today's special.

Jim was glad to see the familiar faces. "Thanks for coming by, guys. Pull up a chair."

The food was decent, and as they ate, conversation centered around happenings that day at the station. Jim knew he had to fill Simon in on Blair's condition eventually, but it was good to be able to eat without talking about the risky state of his partner's health.

But at last, dessert had been finished, and Simon's expression turned serious. "How is he, Jim?"

Daryl looked almost queasy by the time Jim had carefully explained everything he knew about Blair's condition. "You...you're saying he could die!" the young college student blurted out.

"Daryl..." Simon cautioned his son with a quick squeeze of his upper arm and a worried glance at Jim.

"Yes, he could," Jim confirmed, trying to ignore the hard knot of pain in his gut Daryl's words had induced. It wasn't the boy's fault. He and Blair were friends. Daryl had looked up to Blair, admired him, ever since the excitable, intelligent and compassionate anthropologist first showed up at the station. If anyone deserved to know the truth, it was Daryl.

"The doctors are hopeful that the dialysis will keep him going long enough for a donor organ to be found. It's just that he's so weak right now, his body's so stressed, that they don't know how long he'll be able to tolerate dialysis. That's why it's important to find a kidney for Blair soon."

"And there aren't enough donors to go around," Daryl commented wisely. "I did a paper on it my senior year. Lots of patients die every day just because not enough people sign organ donation cards or have it marked on their driver's license. Our class had a big discussion about it, and most of us had our licenses changed to reflect our choice to become donors. I just never thought I'd know someone who needed a donation." Daryl's sad brown eyes looked at Jim. "I'm sorry, Jim."

Touched by the young man's sincerity and concern, Jim forced a smile. "Blair's going to be all right, Daryl. We're not going to think anything else, right?"

Simon interjected, "Jim? How long does the dialysis last? Daryl and I would like to see Blair, but I have to get back to work..."

Jim checked his watch. "They should be wrapping it up any time now. Why don't we go up to his room and wait?"

The walk to the elevator was as good a time as ever. "Listen, guys. Dr. Ryan has a back-up plan..."

By the time Jim finished explaining, both Daryl and Simon were nodded. Without consulting his father, Daryl volunteered, "Count us in!"

Jim looked at his boss and friend, not sure how Simon would react to his son's enthusiastic offer. He needn't have been concerned.

"What he said," Simon said, obviously emotional. "Just tell us what to do."

Words failing him, Jim just nodded. He'd been right all those years ago. It really was all about friendship.

********************

Jim enjoyed watching Blair and Daryl together. Sandburg was filling the young college student in on some of the professors he would be taking for courses in the upcoming semester.

"Watch out for Englemann, Daryl. That guy loves to assign research topics to his students, then when the work's nearly done, he changes horses in mid-stream and assigns a totally different topic. He's your typical disorganized professor type, but you shouldn't have a tough time in his class, as long as you make sure you clarify the assignments."

As the two younger men talked about the pros and cons of Rainier's professors, Simon asked Jim, "Will you be coming in tomorrow?"

Jim shot a quick glance at Blair. "No, I don't think so. Probably not for a while. I know it's putting you in a bind, sir, but I think I should stick around here and..."

"Jim, no." Blair interrupted sharply, his blue eyes concerned. "You need to get on back to work, man."

Simon leaned back, clearly leaving the decision up to Jim and Blair.

"I think I need to be around for a while, Chief. I'll go back when you're feeling better."

Blair shook his head insistently. "No. This is going to be a long-term thing, man. It could stretch out for weeks...months, maybe. There's no point in you spending your days and nights up here with me." A shadow fell over his face. "Maybe later, if things...don't go well. Then, yeah, I'll want you here, but right now, you need to have a life. A normal life. I don't want to interfere with that, Jim. Okay?"

Jim searched Blair's face carefully. He could see the determination in his partner's eyes, but Blair was still so pale and so weak. "I don't know, Chief..."

"Jim," Simon spoke up. "I think Sandburg has a point. He may need you more later on. Maybe it's best that you keep your life as normal as possible while you can. I can work you on a short-shift, if you prefer. That way, unless something is breaking that we really need you there for, you can cut out a few hours early each day."

"Please, Jim," Blair added. "I really want you to get back to your life. I promise if something goes wrong, I'll have them call you. Besides, man, there's only so much togetherness either of us can take, right?"

He didn't like it, but then, Jim didn't like anything that was happening right now. "Okay," he conceded at last. "We'll try it. I'll go in tomorrow morning, Simon, but I want time to run by here first. I'll work until about 5:30. I'd like to be done by then to spend the evening here."

Simon nodded agreement. "That works for me." Turning to his son, he said, "Daryl, I've got to get back, and you have a class this afternoon, right?"

"Yeah. I've got chemistry at 4:00 with Layton." Daryl got up and went over to Blair's bedside. "You hang in there, Blair. I want to take Anthro 101 next year, and you're the only professor I intend to have for that one."

Blair grinned broadly, and then he held out his hand. Daryl took it and shook it firmly. "You've got a deal, Daryl. You and I have a date for Introduction to Anthropology next year. But don't expect me to cut you any slack. You're gonna work your butt off."

Daryl laughed. "Wouldn't want it any other way, Blair. See ya!"

After they'd departed, Jim pulled up a chair beside Blair. "How'd the dialysis go?"

Blair sighed. "Okay, I guess. Kinda boring. I mean, you just lie there, hooked up to all the equipment. I need to bring a book or something."

"Well, maybe you won't have to go through it too long. There's bound to be a donor kidney that will turn up soon."

"I hope so. I'm ready to get out of here and go home, but Dr. Ryan won't even consider that until I build up my strength."

Jim hated to ask, but the question couldn't be ignored. "What about your heart?"

Blair shrugged and wouldn't meet Jim's eyes. He picked at a loose thread on his blanket. "I dunno. Right now, he thinks it's holding its own. If I get my kidney, that should help. There's been damage, but maybe it won't really matter. My heart may be able to keep on working even with the damage. We'll just have to see."

"So nothing's really changed," Jim mused. "That's good, I guess."

Blair chuckled, looking up at Jim. "Yeah. I had a statistics professor who used to say, 'A difference isn't a difference unless a difference makes a difference.' "

"What the hell does that mean?" Jim returned Blair's smile, glad to see his friend smile once again.

"It means that you can have a change, but unless it matters - unless it makes a difference - it doesn't really count. Maybe the damage to my heart will be just that - a difference that doesn't make any difference at all."

The hope in Blair's voice was painful to hear. Jim reached out and rested his hand on Blair's arm. "That sounds good to me, buddy. Really good."

He hesitated a moment, then Jim asked, "Blair? I've been trying to contact Naomi. None of her friends knows anything, but she's going to have my head when she finds out we weren't able to let her know what's going on."

Blair's shoulders shrugged slightly. "It's okay. I'm just as glad."

"Why? She's your mom. You know she'd want to be here with you during this."

"I know, but right now..." Blair shut his eyes for a few moments, then opened them to look earnestly up at Jim.

"Right now, though, I need to do what's right for me, and honestly, I just don't think I could deal with my mom just now. You know Naomi. She'd come in here wanting to try all sorts of natural, homeopathic treatments. I know she means well, and I do agree with a lot of what she believes, but this time, my hope lies with modern medicine. I wouldn't want to hurt her, and..." He stopped, his eyes closing again.

"And what, Chief?" Jim asked gently.

Blair looked up at him again. "I don't want you to have to deal with her either, Jim. We're both under tons of stress right now, and I don't think we need the pressure of Naomi just now. Besides, I really don't know for sure how to reach her. If she calls then you can tell her. I don't want you to lie. Just...just don't try anymore to find her, okay? I want to face this my way. Okay?"

Jim hesitated. Naomi was devoted to Blair, but he had a point. The woman could get on your nerves in a hurry, and she would definitely want to try some of her healing herbs and energies with Blair. Bottom line - she was Blair's mom. If he didn't want to continue trying to track her down then the decision was his.

"Okay, Chief. You've got it. We'll wait until you've got the whole thing licked, then we'll find her and let Naomi know all is well."

He just hoped his friend was making the right decision.

********************

For a week, the dialysis treatments continued. Jim kept his word, going in for what amounted to three-quarter days. He stopped by every morning and ate a quick breakfast with Sandburg, usually a bagel or doughnut with coffee that he picked up at the bakery near the loft. By six o'clock at the latest, he was normally with Blair again, where he stayed until ten o'clock when he headed back to the loft for some rest.

The days weren't easy, but at least, Sandburg was holding his own.

Until the eighth day...

Jim was riding with Joel, heading toward the courthouse where they were meeting with the assistant D.A. about an ongoing case. Six blocks away, Jim's cell phone rang. Joel glanced over from his position in the driver's seat of his dark sedan. "Better get that. Might be the phone," he quipped.

Jim grimaced. "Funny. Just because you refuse to carry one." He dug his phone from his pocket.

"I find the police radio more than effective enough for my job," Joel defended himself.

"Ellison," Jim answered, deciding it wasn't worth arguing with Joel.

"Jim?"

"Blair?" Jim's heart sank. Something was definitely wrong. He had to turn up his Sentinel hearing to pick up the next words.

"I need you..."

********************

He sprinted down the hall, a man possessed. Joel was parking the car and calling Simon. Jim slowed when he got to Blair's doorway, opening it slowly and peering inside. "Chief?"

The equipment surrounding the bed had doubled. He could barely find Blair beneath the array of tubes and machines weaving in and out all around the bed. A nurse was recording information on a clipboard, and Dr. Ryan was leaning over Blair, adjusting the oxygen tubes in his nose.

The doctor turned at the sound of Jim's voice. "Detective Ellison. I'm glad you're here."

"What's going on?" Jim moved carefully through the maze of equipment to Blair's side. His friend's eyes were shut, and his face was pasty. A thin sheen covered his pale skin. "Chief?" he whispered. "Can you hear me?"

"He lost consciousness right after we allowed him to call you. He's been drifting in and out ever since." Dr. Ryan motioned to Jim. "Let's step out in the hall."

Jim hesitated, one hand on Blair's shoulder. Seeing his indecision, the doctor spoke to the nurse. "Marie? We're just going out into the hallway. Would you stay in here with Blair and let us know if there's any change?"

"Of course," the young woman answered pleasantly.

"Let's go, Jim," Dr. Ryan said kindly. "This won't take long."

Reluctantly, Jim left Blair's side and followed the doctor into the hall.

"There's a small room right next door. Let's use it." Without waiting for Jim's consent, Ryan led the way to the empty waiting room.

Once they were seated, the doctor didn't waste time. "His body is no longer tolerating the dialysis. We'd hoped we'd get good results from it for a longer period of time, but he was already too weakened from the virus and high fever."

"Both kidneys are completely shutting down. If we don't get a new kidney into Blair soon..."

The look on the doctor's face told Jim the rest. His heart plummeted in his chest, and just taking his next breath seemed as difficult as scaling Everest. "What...? Have you found a donor organ yet?"

Zachary Ryan eyed Jim thoughtfully. "No. Not a cadaver donor, at least."

Immediately, Jim knew what he meant. "The living donor?"

Dr. Ryan nodded. "We have a match. I just got the call from the lab a few minutes ago."

Jim stared at him, unable to ask the question, but the doctor understood without the words.

"I don't know who it is yet. The report's being sent over now. As soon as I've looked it over, I'll be back to let you know the results."

********************

The small group of concerned friends quickly gathered in the waiting room across from Blair's hospital room, summoned by the phone relay Joel had organized in case of an emergency with Blair's condition. Jim stayed with Blair, waiting anxiously for word from Dr. Ryan about the tests.

All of them had been tested - Simon...Joel...Henri...Rafe...Eli Stoddard...and several other friends, coworkers, and officers willing to give a part of themselves to save the young man they'd all come to know and admire.

Jim knew they were there, and he appreciated the show of support more than any of them could imagine. He just couldn't face any of those friends. His place was beside Blair, and until they came to take his Guide to surgery, he didn't intend to leave.

He held Blair's hand within both of his, hoping to reach through the deep sleep that had claimed the younger man since earlier that afternoon. Blair would stir occasionally, but he only stayed awake for a short time. Jim's thumb lightly stroked Blair's hand, the contact as much for himself as for the patient.

The sound of footsteps approaching broke through his thoughts. He recognized the step of Zachary Ryan and looked up as the doctor came through the door.

"We're ready, Jim."

Sliding Blair's hand to the mattress, then gently patting Blair's shoulder, Jim said softly, "I'll be right back, Chief. You hang in there for me." The young man murmured something unintelligible in his sleep and shifted slightly beneath the covers at the loss of contact with his Sentinel.

Marie, the nurse Jim had met earlier, slipped in quietly to stay with Blair while Jim was gone.

"Do you have the news?" Joel asked immediately once Jim and the doctor joined them in the waiting room.

"Yes," Ryan confirmed. "We do. First, it was wonderful to see so many people willing to help this young man. We did get a match - one person who can provide a kidney that will give Blair a very good chance of survival. I'd like to say that finding a donor among a patient's friends is almost unheard of. Dr. Sandburg is a very fortunate man."

Jim shut his eyes in gratitude. He owed someone a huge debt. He opened his eyes to find Dr. Ryan smiling at him.

"Jim, I have a feeling that you will be glad to know that you are the best candidate to provide Blair with the kidney he needs."

He sank into the nearest chair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, weak with relief. At last there was something concrete he could do to help. "Thank you. Thank God. When do we do this?"

"Immediately. I'll have Marie bring some forms in for you to sign. You have to know that there are real risks to this, Jim. That if you ever suffer damage to your remaining kidney, you'll be the one needing a transplant."

"Right. I understand." It wouldn't matter how great the risk. The cost of not going through with the donation of one of his kidneys to help Blair would have been infinitely greater. Jim turned to Simon. "I assume getting some time off won't be a problem?"

Banks shook his head. "Not at all."

Dr. Ryan departed to prepare for surgery. As the other willing donors began milling around the small waiting room, Simon drew Jim aside. "Are you sure about this? This isn't a small sacrifice you're making for Sandburg. If you do this, it will have an effect on the rest of your life"

Jim glanced toward Sandburg's door. He needed to get back in there, to try to explain what was about to happen to his friend, assuming Blair would be awake enough to hear him. "I'm certain, Simon." He asked, "Do you remember my telling you about the day I went to Blair's office? The first time we really met?"

Simon said, "Of course. You threw him against the wall, if I recall correctly." He smiled despite the tension of the moment.

Jim grimaced. "Yeah, I did. But after that, he knocked me beneath that damned garbage truck after I zoned in the middle of the street. Blair saved my life the first day we met with absolutely no thought for his own safety."

"And you've saved him numerous times since," Simon pointed out.

Jim looked away from Simon, and his voice was soft. "Tommy Juno said something to my once - about his brother Dylan. 'He wasn't just my brother. He was the other half of my soul'." Jim's voice broke, but Simon could make out the words. "That's what Blair is to me. The other half of my soul. I can't let him die. I won't."

A long minute ticked by, then Jim spoke again, his voice stronger, more in control. "That's how it works, Simon. He's my partner. I want to do this. I want to do more, but right now, this is all I can give. Look at it this way. I'd give my life for Blair. Donating a kidney is pretty simple in comparison."

********************

Jim lowered the bedrail and perched precariously on the side of the narrow mattress. Blair stirred, moaning softly in his sleep.

There wasn't much time. He'd already signed the paperwork, and Jim knew that Blair's signature on consent forms had been obtained days before, in hopeful anticipation of the transplant surgery. They would be coming soon for both of them, and it was important that Blair understood what was about to happen. Although he was tempted not to reveal the identity of the kidney donor, to avoid what was sure to be a painful confrontation, Jim was too honest a man not to tell his best friend the truth.

No matter how hard that might be.

"Sandburg?" Jim called, patting Blair gently on the cheek. "I need you to wake up for me, Chief."

Slowly, weary blue eyes emerged from beneath heavy lids.

"That's it," Jim encouraged. "Got some good news, Darwin."

Blair shook his head weakly. His skin had a slightly yellow color, and Jim felt the clamminess beneath his palm, still cupping Blair's face. He purposefully tuned out the sickening irregularity of his Guide's heartbeat.

One hurdle at a time...

"Really? How long have I been sleeping?"

"Awhile. Listen, we've got a donor. You're getting a new kidney, buddy."

Blair's tired eyes brightened with hope. "That's great...only..."

Jim tilted his head slightly. "What? You're not glad? This is a good thing, Chief."

"Yeah, I know. But someone had to die, Jim. For me to get this new kidney, someone out there lost their life."

A slow smile spread across Jim's face. There was the angle he needed to possibly make the whole thing a little more palatable for Blair. "Well," he drawled. "Not exactly."

Blair's confusion was obvious and immediate. His eyes widened then narrowed in suspicion. "Then how...?"

"They call it a living donor transplant. You only need one kidney to live, right?"

"Oh..." Blair thought for a moment. "I hadn't thought of that. Are there donor lists for that kind of transplant? Wouldn't it be strange if it turned out to be someone I know?"

Jim shrugged. "You know him pretty well, actually. Could say you two are really tight." He moved his hand from Blair's cheek to grasp his hand and squeeze.

Realization dawned slowly, and Jim watched the emotions fly like clouds on a breezy day across Sandburg's face. Despite his weakened condition, Blair's objections were unexpectedly vehement. "Oh, no! No, man. You can't do this. What if...what if something happened later on to your remaining kidney? Then you'd need a transplant. We have no idea how you might respond to that. Your body might be more likely to reject or..."

"Shhhh..." Jim placed two fingers lightly over Blair's lips and held them there, pressing him into silence. "You listen to me. This isn't a debate, kid. I am doing this, and there's not an argument you can think of that will change my mind."

Hating to resort to the harsh words, yet knowing he had to convince his Guide of the rightness of his actions, Jim said firmly, "You're dying, Blair. I would do anything in my power to prevent that. If giving up a kidney will keep you alive, that's not a tough decision at all. If something happens to me later, we'll deal with that then. Right now, it's your life on the line. And you cannot tell me that if the situation was reversed, if I needed your kidney to live, that you would have a moment's hesitation. You'd do it in an instant, and you know it." He voice gentled as he added, "So don't try to deny me the chance to do the same thing for you. I'm doing this. Bottom line. No argument, no appeal."

Tears welled in the expressive blue eyes that were locked with Jim's. Beneath his fingers, Blair nodded at last, and Jim let his hand slip to cup Blair's face again. "I'm going to be fine, Junior. You know I'm too tough to let something like this do me in." He patted Blair's cheek affectionately. "I've faced way worse, kid."

"Yeah," Blair whispered, his voice breaking slightly. "I know." He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his hospital gown. "Damn it...I never can win an argument with you, Ellison. Not when it really counts. I don't know what to say..."

There was a light rap at the door, and two nurses, accompanied by several orderlies, filed in.

"Looks like it's time, Chief," Jim said with a warm smile. Jim leaned down close to Blair's ear. "You don't have to say anything," he added softly so only Blair could hear. "Just get better. That's all."

********************

Simon's attention was divided between the two patients lying silently side-by-side in the double hospital room. He had been making bets with himself about who would wake up first, Jim or Blair. His latest money was on Jim. He'd shown more signs of awareness, and the man had that damned protective streak where Sandburg's welfare was concerned. No, Jim wouldn't be out of it any longer than necessary, not with Blair's health in such jeopardy.

When the Sentinel's bleary eyes blinked open at last, Simon congratulated himself on placing an astute wager.

"Welcome back to the land of the living." Simon held out a spoonful of ice chips, and Jim sucked a couple before answering.

"Sandburg?" His voice was raspy, but his eyes were intently focused on his Guide in the next bed.

"You both came through with flying colors. Dr. Ryan was in here about an hour ago. He said Sandburg's vitals were good, already stronger than before the surgery. They've already started him on the anti-rejection meds, and he shows no sign of rejection so far."

Simon laughed quietly at the thought that had just occurred to him. "You know he won't reject any part of you, Jim, and the kid's a hell of a lot tougher than we sometimes give him credit for. Either that, or he was scared not to be okay, knowing you'd be madder than hell if he wasn't. I know I hate to face you when you're angry." His smile belayed the teasing tone of his voice. "Blair's okay, Jim. Thanks to you."

There was no mistaking the huge sigh of relief that followed those words. "Thank God," Jim breathed. "Do you think he'll be awake soon?"

"He is awake. Now," grumbled Blair in the same raspy voice as Jim. "Simon, got any more of that ice?"

After Blair had soothed his throat with the ice, he asked, "Jim? You okay?"

"Fine, Chief. A little sore and a lot sleepy, but otherwise, I'm good. How about you?"

"I feel like some mule kicked me in the gut, but I guess that's to be expected." He held up a button hooked up to his IV. "The nurse explained before the surgery about this pain button. I can hit it whenever I need an extra jolt of the juice."

Jim grinned. "She showed me, too, but I have the pain dials. Think I'll rely on them."

Simon shook his head. "A Sentinel with his pain dials turned to low and Sandburg with a supply of morphine. I'm not sure which is scarier." He stood up and stretched. "If you two are set for the rest of the day, I'm heading to the station. Joel was covering for me until one or both of you were awake enough to take care of yourselves."

Jim shot Blair a glance. Already there was more color in his face, and his eyes were fairly alert, considering the drugs in his system. Hope rose like a flame within him. "We're okay, Simon. Thanks."

"And tell everyone who volunteered to help thanks for me, too, okay? That includes you, Simon. Jim said you took the test to be a donor, too."

Banks' face grew stern. "I just knew how it would affect Jim if something happened to you, Sandburg. I was merely trying to protect the interests of my best detective and my team."

"Right," Blair said with a broad grin. "Thanks, Simon. Really."

Simon opened the door and stepped halfway into the hall. "I'll check on you this evening. Daryl said he wanted to stop by, too, if you're up to it."

"Bring him on," Blair agreed. "I'm ready to talk about something other than sickness and surgeries."

When Simon left, closing the door behind him, Jim turned to Blair. "How do you really feel?"

For a long moment, Blair seemed to be taking inventory. "Stronger. Better. I think this is going to work, Jim. I owe you, man. Big time."

"You don't owe me a thing, Blair. Not a thing." And it was true. The reality was that Jim owed Blair more than he could ever repay. Not that real friends kept track of such things. If Blair could only recover, get well again, the offering of one single kidney would be a small price to pay.

********************

One Week Later...

"Oh, man, it's good to be home!" Blair looked around the loft, a huge grin plastered on his face.

Jim emerged from Blair's room where he'd dropped the younger man's bag, packed just that morning in the hospital. "I'm sure. After all, you were gone for almost five weeks in Africa. You were in the hospital about a week before the transplant, then a week after." He calculated quickly. "All in all, it's been seven weeks since you were home."

Blair moved to look out the windows at the city lying beyond. "There were a few times I wasn't sure if I'd make it home," he admitted.

"Well, you're back now. Dr. Ryan says there's no reason you can't go back to work, as long as you stay on your meds and pace yourself. And go in for your check-ups."

Jim stood beside his friend, gazing outward. The mid-afternoon sun created a sea of dancing diamonds on the water lying beyond the city. "He's still concerned about your heart." God, he hated saying those words.

"My heart's fine," Blair retorted. "My new kidney - our kidney - is functioning perfectly, and as far as I'm concerned, this whole ordeal is over."

Jim clapped him on the shoulder. "That's the attitude, Chief. Keep it positive. You ready for some lunch?"

As he went into the kitchen to begin preparations for lunch, Jim sent up a little prayer that Blair would be proven right - that the ordeal really was behind them. His own recovery had been smooth. Besides the initial soreness, Jim had felt few effects from the surgery. Of course, his pain dials had helped.

Now, if Sandburg could just have the same luck.

He tried to ignore the little voice whispering that nothing with Sandburg was ever so simple.

********************

And for a time, it seemed that the voice was wrong.

Blair picked up a reduced workload at Rainier, and he even began to come in to work at the station for a couple of hours a day. The bullpen crew was delighted to have the young man back in their midst, and for two weeks, Blair didn't have to buy a single lunch.

Jim tried not to hover. That was not an easy task. One of Sandburg's theories he'd never taken issue with was that he had been genetically programmed to protect his Guide. With Blair's health still an issue, it took a ton of self-restraint for Jim not to overprotect.

The hours he spent at the station while his partner worked at Rainier stretched on forever. The first few days, Jim had called Blair's office almost every hour on the hour. But a heated lecture from the professor had ended that. Jim resorted to clock-watching until Blair checked in or walked in the bullpen door. His Sentinel instincts definitely did not approve of the separation from his Guide at this vulnerable time in Sandburg's life.

But Blair seemed to be doing fine, Jim had to admit. His color was good, and his energy and stamina, while not nearly at the level they once were, had increased somewhat since his release from the hospital. As long as he took an afternoon nap and went to bed at a decent hour, Sandburg seemed to hold up fine with his light work schedule.

Still, a nagging voice taunted Jim. His heart is damaged. Shouldn't he be gaining even more strength? Why does he still take a nap every day? There's something wrong, and you know it. You can hear it; you can sense it. Sentinel, protect your Guide!

That voice was becoming harder and harder to ignore.

********************

The hunter cornered his prey. Panting, its head hanging low, the wolf stood with its back against a solid wall of rock. There was nowhere to run. Slowly, the hunter raised his crossbow, the gleaming tip of the arrow aimed true at the wolf's heart.

Above, on a cliff overlooking the river, the jaguar pulled up from a full run. The scene below burned itself cruelly into his mind. There was no way to get there in time. No way to save the wolf. With his ebony head raised in supplication to the heavens, the jaguar screamed his desperate, angry roar.

Distracted for a moment from his deadly task, the hunter looked up, spied the jaguar, and smiled.

As the feline stared down into the eyes of the hunter and realized his terrible identity, it screamed again, this time in heartbroken despair.

The face of the hunter was a gleaming skull - the face of death.

********************

Jim awoke in a sweat, sitting bolt upright in bed, his heart pounding in his chest, a scream bottled tightly in his throat. He fought to control his breathing, each gasp a struggle to draw oxygen into his lungs. It took a full minute to regain some sense of reality.

Tossing off the constricting, sweat-dampened covers, Jim sprang up, drawing his robe around him even as he hurried down the stairs. He stopped short outside Blair's room, extending his hearing to find the sound of his Guide's heart. Still breathing hard, Jim had to work to focus on the sound, then his breath caught when he heard the rhythm.

He couldn't describe the problem in words, but as sure as he was standing in his own home, something wasn't right.

You knew that, Jim reasoned with himself. It's the first time you've really listened to his heart since he got sick. You've been tuning it out ever since the hospital. There's bound to be a difference. This is nothing to panic over. Dr. Ryan knows the problems. He's monitoring Blair's condition twice every week, along with the cardiologists. You shouldn't be this worried...this scared.

But he was.

He was terrified.

Standing outside Blair's room, the memory of the vision a heavy shadow hanging over him, Jim couldn't deny his own fear. It resounded in his veins, a pounding tympani of terror. Something was terribly wrong with his Guide.

Jim stood there in the dark, listening to the damaged heart of the man who had become the center of his world, and tried to weigh his options logically.

Problem was, there was no logic where Sentinels, Guides, and their visions were concerned.

There really was no decision to make. As soon as possible, Jim was taking Blair to Dr. Ryan - kicking, screaming, and cursing, if necessary.

Sacrifices 3

********************

"It was a dream, man!" Blair argued, almost knocking over his glass of orange juice when he slapped the table with his fist. "I have a class to teach this morning. I can't go running to Ryan whenever you get one of your fear responses!"

Jim fought against his instinct to grab Blair and hustle him out the door without another word "Chief, this wasn't a dream. It was a vision. There is a difference, and you damn well know it. I've had them before, and you know better than anyone what happened when I tried to ignore them. I won't make that mistake again, Sandburg. I can't afford to, and you sure as hell can't afford it either."

"Look, Jim." Blair was suddenly calmer, more reasonable. "I have my weekly appointment with Dr. Ryan tomorrow anyway. What's one more day gonna hurt?" He shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them again to stare at Jim, challenge flowing steadily from his blue eyes.

Did he look paler this morning? There was no denying that the circles beneath his eyes were deeper, providing undeniable evidence of his exhaustion.

"So you go a day early." Jim got up and placed his plate in the sink. "Look, Sandburg, I'm not taking no for an answer on this one, so don't waste your breath arguing." Jim monitored Blair with his sense of hearing as he quickly washed his plate and coffee cup. Blair wasn't happy with his ultimatum, but at last, he heard him take a long, deep breath.

"All right, but I'm teaching my nine o'clock class. I'll be done at eleven. I'll go see Ryan then. If he has time to see me," the younger man added, a note of challenge still in his voice.

A partial surrender. Jim was tempted to fight for complete victory, but the hard set of Blair's expression told him it would mean another round of arguments. He wasn't sure if it was worth the risk of getting Sandburg upset again. He settled for what Blair had offered. With a small modification.

"Fine. He'll see you. I'll make sure of that. And I'm dropping you off and school and picking you up at eleven. I don't think you should drive right now." The image of Blair blacking out at the wheel wasn't one Jim wanted to allow to become reality.

"Nobody ever said I couldn't drive," Blair pointed out testily.

"I just said it. Humor your Blessed Protector on this one, okay? If you get an all clear from Ryan, I won't say another word about it."

Apparently that placated his Guide. Nodding agreement, Blair got up from the table and cleaned his own dishes then proceeded to gather his things for the day.

Within a few minutes they were on their way to Rainier. Just an ordinary day, Jim thought as he drove the familiar route to campus.

He wished with every fiber in his being that by the time they left Ryan's office, it really would be just another average day.

********************

Jim parked the truck in front of Hargrove Hall then walked toward the entrance to the building where the anthropology department was housed. He took care to ignore the splashing of the fountain as he passed. It was too chilling a reminder of the last time he'd come so close to losing Blair.

But he hadn't lost him then, and Jim intended to make absolutely certain that he did not lose him now.

There was a commotion around the front entrance. A huddle of students was busily humming like bees around their hive. Something was always going on where college students were concerned, he thought with a wry smile. And Sandburg absolutely loved the business of working with young people. It suited him perfectly. In fact, Blair still had so much kid in him, he often seemed not that much older than the students he taught.

One of the students turned and recognized Jim. It was Anthony, a senior Blair had introduced him to once in his office. "Detective Ellison!" Anthony broke from the huddle and hurried toward Jim.

"Hey, Anthony," Jim greeted him, pleased that he could greet the personable young man by name. But Anthony did not return Jim's smile.

"It's Dr. Sandburg! Something's wrong with him! He passed out during our lecture and..."

Jim didn't wait for the rest. Breaking into a run, he charged through the doors then realized he didn't know where Blair was. Hearing Anthony behind him, he barked, "Where is he?"

"Hall B. Downstairs and to the right."

As Jim ran down the hall, he called back, "Did anyone call an ambulance?"

"They said it was on the way. But that was a few minutes ago. We were waiting outside to show them which way to go when they arrived."

Jim took the long flight of steps three at a time, his feet barely skimming the stairs. Hanging a right, he immediately heard the hum of concerned voices from lecture hall B and stormed through the doors and down the long aisle leading to the podium.

Blair was crumpled on the floor. Someone had covered him with a coat, and a sweater was tucked beneath his head. Blair lay on his back, his eyes closed, and his face chalky white. Jim drew in a sharp breath as he saw the slight underlying blue tint to Blair's skin. The crowd of students drew back at his arrival, giving him room to get to Sandburg. Dropping to one knee, Jim placed his fingers directly on the pulse point on Blair's neck and released a grateful breath.

There was a pulse.

Tuning in his hearing, he heard the telltale beat of life, but it was shaky and out of time, like an inexperienced rhythm section, unsure of its groove. This was definitely not good.

"Chief?"

At the single word, Blair's eyes fluttered open. A weak smile twisted the corners of his lips upward, and his mouth moved slightly, but no sound emerged.

"Shhhhh...don't try to talk." Pulling the coat more snugly around Blair's shoulders, Jim stroked his hair gently, hoping the touch would calm his frightened Guide. "It's okay, Blair. There's an ambulance on the way. I'm right here. Relax. Take slow, deep breaths. Easy, now."

The wide blue eyes never left his face. Jim talked quietly, never ceasing the rhythmic stroking. As the minutes ticked by, the knot in his gut grew. By the time the ambulance arrived, the blue tint of Blair's skin had intensified, and his breathing had become more labored.

Immediately, an oxygen mask was strapped on, and the EMTs began running IVs and talking to the hospital on the radio. Jim reluctantly moved back, allowing easier access to Blair. Sandburg's eyes followed him, searching silently for reassurance.

Jim only wished he could provide some, both to Blair and to himself.

Jim followed the stretcher out the door and to the ambulance.

A frightening sense of déjà vu followed Jim as he drove behind the ambulance, sirens blaring, to the hospital. They'd followed the same route, after Blair returned to life at the fountain.

His jaw set in steel, Jim concentrated on the traffic, but a niggling thought kept fluttering in the back of his mind.

How many times can one person cheat death?

********************

Dr. Ryan slipped quietly in the door, and Jim looked up from his place at Blair's bedside. The doctor's face was grim, and Jim knew immediately the news was not good. Glancing down, he saw that Blair's eyes were open and following the doctor over the oxygen tubes fixed in place beneath his nose.

Ryan didn't waste time with pleasantries. "Blair, we have you stabilized now, but I don't have to tell you that you had a close call this morning."

Sandburg nodded. "Yeah, I figured. What...happened?" His voice was weak, and nearly every other word was followed by a pause as Blair fought for the energy to speak.

The doctor pulled up the second chair across the narrow bed from Jim's position and shook his head. His face was a grim mask. "I'd hoped that your heart would be able to cope with the loss of the damaged portions of muscle and compensate. But from the tests we ran this afternoon, it seems that even more muscle was damaged than we originally thought. Your heart is just too weakened to sustain life. You had a cardiac arrest this morning, Blair. If you had been doing anything other than just standing and talking, it might have been a lot worse."

Jim's mind reeled as he tried to make sense of the doctor's words. This wasn't right. It wasn't fair. Blair was too young for a heart attack. He should be healthy, active, and enjoying each and every moment of his life, not lying here in the hospital fighting to survive. It wasn't fair, damn it!

But since when had life become fair?

"So, I...go home...and rest?"

Dr. Ryan shook his head. "No, Blair, I'm afraid not. I cannot allow you to leave the hospital in this condition. It would be too risky."

Jim stared at his friend, unwilling to believe there wasn't something he could do to help. "So what do we do? How do we fix this?" Already knowing what the doctor was going to say, he covered Blair's hand with his and squeezed reassuringly.

"If we do nothing, he will die." Jim flinched at those words as Ryan continued. "Blair, your only option is another transplant. We need to locate a strong heart that will be able to take over for your damaged one."

Blair shut his eyes, his chin quivering slightly, and nodded. He didn't speak.

Jim tightened his grip on his Guide's hand. This just couldn't be happening. It was all part of the nightmare, part of his worst dreams. "The last time...with his kidney...there wasn't a donor..."

Ryan nodded. "I know, but again, his condition warrants his name being placed near the top of the list for transplant. Frankly, it's a game of chance - a balancing act of keeping him stabilized through drugs long enough for an appropriate match to be made. It's a gamble. Of the approximately 4,000 patients approved yearly for transplant, about half die before a donor is found. It seems cruel, but the more his condition deteriorates, the higher on the list his name will go. If he goes too far down, however, he will no longer be considered a viable candidate."

The three men sat in silence. Blair's fingers curled around Jim's hand, holding on tightly. Jim returned the grip as his free hand ran soothingly up and down Blair's bare arm. There were no words left, no questions to ask that hadn't already been answered.

The doctor stood to leave. "I have to finish rounds. Blair, you keep your hopes up. We're going to do everything possible to help you. The statistics are looking better each year. After ten years, the survival rate for transplants is about 50%. Improvements in immunosuppression and in the prevention and treatment of infection have led to a greatly increased outlook, and we're continuing to make advances."

"As young as you are, there is every chance that even more advances will be made that will add to your living a longer life after transplant. I won't lie to you and say your life will be perfectly normal after the transplant. But it is a chance for life, Blair, and a good life at that."

He looked over at Jim. "As for you, I know better than to tell you to go home and rest, but remember that you need to pace yourself. You're no good to Blair completely exhausted."

Jim sat in stunned silence. He nodded briefly to indicate that he'd heard.

With a last compassionate look at the two friends, Dr. Ryan closed the door behind him.

A few minutes later, Blair said softly, "Guess you...were...right."

The words were a knife. "I'm so sorry, Chief."

Blair shrugged helplessly. "Not your...fault, man. We just...have to...hope that..." His voice gave out, leaving the sentence unfinished.

Jim fought for control over the despair threatening to overtake him. Images of the vision's wolf, injured and cornered by the skull-faced hunter, flashed before his eyes, overlaid in double exposure over Blair's pale face. The vision had warned him, should have prepared him for this. But nothing could ease the pain of hearing that Blair's life hung by a single thread of hope.

Unable to find words to comfort, Jim offered the only thing he had to give the young man who meant more than life to him - his presence and his touch.

And so the waiting began.

********************

Watching Blair grow visibly weaker by the day was the hardest thing Jim had ever endured. The hollows in his cheeks grew deeper as the circles beneath his eyes darkened even more. Brief catnaps lengthened into hours, and it became harder to rouse Blair from these deep sleeps. When he did awaken, he was often confused and disoriented. The mental confusion was almost harder for Jim to bear than his friend's physical weakness. Blair's once sharp, brilliant mind had been reduced by fate to a much slower, more muddled shadow of itself.

Friends came and went, their quiet words of encouragement appreciated, but no longer inspiring much hope. More often than not, Blair did not awaken during their brief visits. Jim began spending less time at the station and more at the hospital, but Simon did not object, and for that, Jim was grateful. The other detectives at Major Crimes willingly shouldered Jim's share of the workload so that he could be with his partner as much as possible.

Partnerships like theirs were rarer than perfect diamonds, and like those precious stones, inspired awe in those privileged enough to see them. The men of Major Crimes and of the Cascade P.D. had seen their share of strong, devoted partnerships, but never had they witnessed anything close to the power of the bond that connected Ellison and Sandburg. The unspoken knowledge that Jim and Blair might not have much more time together weighed heavily on everyone.

And broke their hearts.

One day, two weeks after collapsing during his lecture, Sandburg seemed to rally a little. He was contemplative, and Jim could see that something was weighing on his mind.

"Jim?"

Jim lowered the magazine he'd been holding - reading not being the appropriate term for merely staring blindly at the pages and flipping one occasionally. "You need something, Chief?"

Blair shifted in the bed, located the controls, and raised his head and shoulders up slightly. "There are some things...I need to take...care of." While he was a bit stronger, talking was obviously still a battle, and Jim ached with every labored breath his Guide drew.

"Right now, all you need to take care of is yourself. Anything else can wait until you get out of here."

Blair shot him an irritated look. "That's not what..I mean...and you...know it." The irritation was replaced by one of infinite sadness. "Aww, Jim...you know...I'm dying."

Blowing out his breath in an aggrieved huff, Jim shook his head. "No. You're going to get the transplant. You'll be okay."

"Aww, Jim...c'mon. You're the one with...Sentinel sight. Use it...to look at me. You think...I can't see...the changes? I can...barely walk now...just staying...awake is...a battle."

Blair stopped, breathing hard, the few sentences almost more than he could manage. "I want to put things...in order. I've already made...a will. I just want...to see some people...say things...that need saying." Wide blue eyes, too large in his thin, pale face watched Jim carefully. "I need to...say...goodbye."

"No...it's not time for that, Chief. You're a long way from goodbyes." Jim wanted to flee, to run from the hard truth Blair was trying to force him to face. It couldn't have come down to goodbyes. Not so soon.

"Jim, please...I'm just...asking you to let...a few people know. You don't have to...stay in the room, man...if it's too much..." Blair closed his eyes, weakened by the energy he'd expended. "Don't...want to...hurt you."

How could he argue with Blair, when he lay there so weak and so helpless? How could he deny what could be a last request from the man to whom he owed so very much? Yet, how could he concede defeat, admit that he was quickly losing the one thing he held most dear?

"Okay," Jim conceded quietly. "Just don't ask me to be part of your goodbye list, Chief. I won't go there with you. I'm not ready for that. I'm not sure I'll ever be ready, so just count me out."

********************

With each person he saw, Blair felt more at peace. He'd begun with his associates at Rainier, starting with some of his fellow professors and ending with Eli Stoddard. Eli had been the toughest. Saying goodbye to his mentor meant facing up to the fact that this time, his career was really over for good.

"You have a brilliant mind, Blair," the older man said, tears shining in his eyes, just before he left. "The world will be more empty without you."

Joel, Henri, and Rafe accompanied Simon to see Blair for what might be the last time. When they had all settled into chairs surrounding Blair's bed, the tired young man gazed at the circle of familiar, sad faces around him.

"You guys know the...score," he began, speaking slowly, each sentence requiring a substantial portion of his waning strength. "I'm not going...to waste time. I wanted to...let you know," he said, looking each one in the eyes as he spoke, "exactly how much I...appreciate everything...you've done...for me."

Rafe said quietly, "There's no need, Blair. We're all your friends, and..."

"Yes, there is...a need," Blair disagreed softly. "I don't want...loose ends."

When Rafe only nodded, swiping quickly at his eyes with his sleeve, Blair smiled, his chin quivering with a combination of emotion and weakness. "Rafe, you were the youngest...of the 'real' cops...guess that...made us...allies. You add class...with those...suits. Been...a good friend. Take care of Henri. Hard to find a...good partner."

Rafe whispered, "I will, Blair." He got up to face the window, his shoulders shaking.

Turning to Henri, Blair said with a smile, "Henri, you're a...real original. Talented musician...great cop. Look after Rafe. You're...family. Always made me feel...included. Calling me...'Hairboy'."

Blair forced a look of mock irritation and was rewarded when Henri laughed softly. "Thanks for always...being there...for me."

Leaning back, arms crossed, Henri's head inclined slightly in thanks. "You've been a great friend, Blair. It's been a pleasure working with you. And it's been an honor to be your friend."

Looking over at Simon, Blair's smile faded. "Simon...what can I...say? You're a leader...who inspires...leads by example. I came...believing...that cops can't be trusted...you intimidated the hell out of me."

"You didn't show it, Sandburg," Simon commented, his voice rough.

"Tried to...cover it...up," Blair explained with a weak smile. He stopped, taking several deep breaths of oxygen, gathering strength. "You had...every reason... to kick me out...but you let...me stay. For the past few years...I've known...what it's like...to have...a dad. Daryl's one...lucky kid."

Simon's only response was to reach over and squeeze Blair's shoulder and wipe away a single tear. "Thank you, son."

"Joel," Blair said, "you're one of the...finest men I've ever...met. I admire your...patience...insight...courage. Been...an honor...knowing you."

Joel bent down, hugging Blair as best he could, given the confines of the hospital bed. "You're a fine man, too, Sandburg, and a good cop. I don't care what title you have, you're one of us."

Blair's smile was weak but genuinely pleased. "That...means a lot...to me. Thanks, Joel."

All the detectives waited. Blair shut his eyes for a moment, gathering his energy for what would certainly be the toughest part of what he had to do. "One more thing," he said at last. "I have...a favor to ask...and it's a...big one. Look out...for Jim, okay?"

He stared out the window. It was raining, as it had been for two days. He could almost smell the fresh scent of a spring shower and longed to be outdoors. Maybe camping up in the mountains by a swiftly flowing river with Jim.

Jim...

His mind returned to the task at hand.

"He's in the middle of...some pretty deep denial," Blair continued with a heavy sigh. He paused to breathe deeply and gather his strength. "In my research...I called it a 'fear response'. It's something Jim...falls back on...when he's scared."

He stopped, breathing heavily. He had to keep going, had to find the strength to finish this. This was for Jim, perhaps the last thing he could do for him.

Seeing the doubtful looks on a couple of faces, Blair argued weakly, "Yeah, he gets scared...just like...we all do. He's just...better about...covering it up."

"When...if...I'm gone, Jim's going to have a tough time." Again, he paused to breathe. "You...all remember what...he was like before...hiding behind those damned walls...not letting anyone close enough to help him. Or hurt him."

Blair looked at each of his friends in turn. And they were his friends, just as they were Jim's. "Please...don't let him put up those walls again. He's going to need you all...to make it. Right now...Jim doesn't want to admit that I may...that I am... leaving him. Make him stay...in the world, okay? Whatever it takes...keep him from...shutting you all out. It won't be easy... nothing with Jim is ever easy...but he's worth it."

Blair's voice broke, and he had to take a couple of deep breaths of oxygen to steady himself enough to go on. "I need to know...he's going to...be all right. Can you promise me...you'll all be there...for Jim?"

One by one, each man gave his assent. "We'll look after Jim, Hairboy, don't you worry...Jim will be all right, Blair, we'll see to that...He may fight us, Sandburg, but we'll stay with him until he's okay again."

Moved beyond words, and utterly exhausted, Blair smiled weakly. Thanks, guys. Really. I'm not planning on going anywhere...for a while. I expect to see...you all here for some visits, okay?"

There were a few more good-byes, then the detectives of Major Crimes slipped away, leaving Blair to rest. As Simon stepped to the door, Blair whispered, "Simon? Stay a minute?"

"What is it, son?" Simon settled back into his chair.

"I need a...favor. Something I...couldn't ask in front...of the others."

"Of course. What can I do?"

"I'm trying to tie up loose ends, to say my good-byes...in case..." He knew he didn't have to explain. "But Jim..."

"He won't let you say good-bye to him," Simon stated, his brown eyes filled with empathy.

Blair nodded. "Right. He's got a...major case of denial...going on right now. I really need...want...to let him know some stuff...but if he won't...let me tell him, if he doesn't want to hear..."

"Jim loves you, Blair," Simon said gently. "Maybe more than any of us can understand. This isn't easy for any of us, but it has to be killing Jim. I saw him at the fountain when he thought you were dead - when you were dead - and it nearly destroyed him. He just couldn't accept losing you. Wouldn't accept it. And somehow he found a way to bring you back. I'm not surprised he's denying what's happening to you now. He knows that this time, there's nothing he can do to keep you, so he's gone into denial mode. What can I do to help you say the things you want to say to him, so he'll hear you?"

Blair nodded. "I've got...an idea..."

********************

Two nights later, Jim wearily climbed the steps to the loft. It was after ten, and only Dr. Ryan's threat to have him banned from Blair's room had convinced him to head home for a night's rest.

"You won't do Blair any good if you end up flat on your back," the doctor pointed out. "Go home. I don't want to see you back here until morning. If necessary, I'll have a security guard posted outside his door to keep you out until you look like you belong to the human race again."

As if that would have kept me away, Jim thought as he slipped the key in the lock and finally caught a glimpse of his home at last.

How long had it been since he'd slept here? Pretty bad when a man can't recall the last time he'd spent a night in his own bed instead of sitting in an uncomfortable hospital chair.

No wonder he was exhausted.

He should eat. Had he eaten since he'd grabbed a sandwich with Joel at lunch?

Did it really matter?

Stopping by the kitchen, he stared blankly into the refrigerator. Not much to choose from there. Finally, he selected a can of soup from a cabinet and nuked it until it was lukewarm. He crumbled in a few crackers and ate it standing up.

As Jim prepared for bed, he carefully avoided looking into Blair's room. Too dangerous with his emotions so close to the surface. The last thing he needed was to shatter the thin veneer of control he was managing to keep in place.

After a quick shower, Jim slowly went upstairs to his room. As tired as he was, he knew sleep would elude him. His mind was too full, his heart too heavy, for relaxation and rest.

He tossed restlessly, first to one side, then the other. The silence in the loft was so complete, it was distracting. He'd slept when Blair had been gone to Africa, just as he had on other nights when Sandburg was away. Why was tonight so hard?

Because you know he may never be back here again...

Jim cursed the inward voice and punched his pillow. What was wrong with the damned thing? Had it always been so hard?

No...something was under his pillow...something square and hard. Reaching under, Jim pulled out a mini-cassette player.

What the...?

He didn't need additional light to read the sticky note attached, written in Blair's shaky hand:

Jim,
Please listen to this all the way through. For me, okay?
Blair

Jim let the tape player fall to the bed and lay back with a weary sigh. "Aw, Chief, what are you doing to me?" he muttered, closing his eyes. He could ignore the tape and the note. Rather, he could try. It called to him from across the bed, a siren beckoning him to the rocks of emotions he wasn't sure he could control.

One thing was for certain. There would be no sleep until he did as Blair asked. Until he heard whatever was on that tape.

Reaching over to where the player had fallen, he picked it up then lay for a moment, staring at the infernal machine. How the hell had Sandburg managed to get the thing under his pillow in the first place? Had to be Simon. No one else had a key.

"You win, Chief," he sighed, hitting the Play button. "Let's get this over with."

"Hey, Jim. Glad you're listening, man. I really wasn't sure if you would. I guess you figured that Simon helped me out with this. Don't come down on him too hard, okay? It's kinda tough turning down the request of a dying man, y'know?

Well, I guess that opens the door to what this is all about. I wanted to say some things to you, Jim, some things you weren't exactly ready to hear, at least not directly from me. I think I know why, and it's okay. This stuff isn't easy to hear. I know that. I figured it might be easier for you if you could listen to it without having to face me, to see me. I hope that's true, because it's important for me to know that you know. Simon's helping me tape this, but that's okay, too, 'cause he knows this stuff already, most of it anyway.

Jim hit the Pause button and let the machine fall from his hand. This wasn't going to be easy. He felt his heart pounding, just at the sound of Blair's voice and the words his friend said, apparently so easily. A dying man... How the hell was he supposed to listen to this?

Yet, how could he not? He hit Play again, steeling himself for what was to come. Blair's voice sounded stronger on the tape, almost normal. Jim could hear the oxygen rushing through the tube inserted in Blair's nose, but his breathing seemed fairly normal, and the pauses between words were almost nonexistent. But Sentinel ears could hear the subtle clicks that indicated that this tape had been made in very short segments, giving Blair time to regroup between takes. You're not fooling me, Chief. This was a major feat for you to pull off.

Jim, I want you to do a couple of things for me before I really get started, okay? First, I want you to go to my room and get one of my pillows off the bed. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but bear with me here, all right? Turn the machine off now and go get the pillow. Then come back up to your room and lie down on the bed. Be sure whatever you're wearing is comfortable - loose and soft. Okay, flip off the machine then turn it back on when you're ready.

"This is getting strange, even for you, Chief," Jim grumbled as he trotted down to Sandburg's room. He bit the inside of his cheek as he entered, hoping the physical pain might distract him from the sensory onslaught. It helped, but not much. The scent of his Guide was strong, and Jim's chest tightened at the memories it evoked. Quickly, he swiped a pillow from the bed and headed back upstairs.

Stretching out, Jim stretched out on the bed. "Okay, kid. I'm comfortable. Lights are out. Let's do this." He hit Play.

Okay, you're back. Comfortable? Good.

First, let me remind you of something, Jim. This is NOT your fault. In no way, shape, or form. Remember, I was in Africa for MY career, not yours. It had absolutely nothing to do with police work and everything to do with anthropology. You accept certain risks with your career, right? Well, so do we. Anthropologists, I mean. One of those risks is the possibility of contracting some exotic illness, which is exactly what happened to me. So right now, I want you to repeat after me. 'What happened is not my fault.' Say it, Jim.

He couldn't get the words out. The knot in his throat was simply too tight. The scent of Blair lingered on the soft white pillow case, and it wafted around him like a cloud. Sandburg wasn't there. He was in the hospital, fighting for his life once again. How could he not blame himself? If he'd only been there...

You didn't say it, did you? Didn't think you would the first time. Let's try it again, man, 'cause this is, like, SO important for you to internalize. Say this after me, Jim. 'What happened is not my fault.' I want you to say it three times then say it at least three times a day until you really, truly believe it. Okay, let's go. Say it: 'What happened is not my fault.'

This time, he managed to whisper, "What happened is not my fault." Hesitating, he said it again. Then again. By the time he was done, there was actually a small part of him that believed it. When he had finished, Blair's voice spoke again, almost as if he'd known Jim had done as he'd asked.

That's the way, buddy. Remember, three times a day for as long as it takes. You're doing great, Jim. Just hang in there with me.

Now, I want you to just listen for a while, okay? First, take my pillow and bring it close so you can hold it and smell my scent on it. Take deep, long, slow breaths. In and out...slow and easy. Just listen to my voice and breathe me in, Jim. It's all right, man. I'm with you. I'll always be with you, no matter what. Relax...breathe...listen...that's all you have to do right now.

Without opening his eyes, Jim reached for the pillow, drawing it to his chest, and wrapping his arms around it. The cloud bearing his Guide's scent enveloped him, and at first, the force of the sensations hurt like hell. All the things Blair was - his strength, courage, humor, devotion, and compassion - surrounded Jim. His mind flashed to green fields and bright meadows with sweet wildflowers, the earthy scents of sage and musk, the clean, fresh smells of the earth after a spring rain. All of these - and so many more - were part of the unique spirit that was Blair Sandburg. Gradually, the essence of all that Blair was melted into him, dissolving like a mist, becoming so much a part of the Sentinel that he could feel the cloud-Blair swirling throughout his body.

Slowly, Jim released all the tension that had built up since Blair became sick and let the familiar, soothing voice carry him into a state of deep relaxation. His Guide's voice sang on, surrounding him with a soft blanket of caring and reassurance. The words were meaningless, intended only to help him relax, and they accomplished that purpose expertly. Eventually, however, Blair brought him back to what he was saying, but the feeling of relaxation remained.

That's better, isn't it? I want you to keep up the deep breathing, Jim, while I talk to you a while. Just listen and know that everything I'm saying here is the truth, man. I've never lied to you, right?

You know I don't want to leave you. I never want to be any place other than right there at your side. The years I've spent with you have been the best of my life. You do know that, don't you? I don't know how to put it all into words. I mean, just think about it - the excitement, the danger, the laughter, the tears. The friendship...

God, Jim, I don't want to go, but it looks like I may not have a choice this time. You do know I chose to come back at the fountain, don't you? You came for me - this gorgeous black jaguar racing toward me - but I had the choice. I could have chosen to stay there in the peaceful jungle, but I couldn't, man. Not when you'd come for me. I knew when I saw you there that you cared. That I mattered. So I came back.

Have I ever thanked you for that? For coming for me?

Anyway, this time, I don't think I'll have a choice. I promise you, I won't go unless I absolutely have to. I intend to fight this thing until there's just nothing left to fight with, Jim. I promise you that.

But, if I do have to go, know that I will always be with you. Sounds like a contradiction, right? But I believe there has to be something beyond this life. I mean, Incacha's proven that to us, hasn't he? When you really, really need him, he's able to come to you. Well, if I go, you'll have me, too. I swear, Jim, I will stay beside you, in this world and in the next. And one day, my friend, we'll be together again.

>So, I don't want you going backwards, okay? No putting up those walls of yours and keeping out the people who care about you. Letting them in and going on with your life doesn't mean that you love me any less.

It's okay to hurt, man, and it's okay to grieve. You have my permission to cry, to scream or break things or go punch the hell out of the bag at the gym. Whatever you need to get through this is okay, but you do not have my permission to go back to that island of isolation of yours again. You've got good friends in the guys at the station, Jim. Let them help you. Lean on them, man. Please.

No one can understand what we are, man. I know that. But they all know what it's like to love...and to lose. That's what this is really all about, isn't it, Jim? Not about a Sentinel losing a Guide or a cop losing his partner. I've said it before, but it's still true. It's about friendship. And losing a friend is never easy. Especially when that friendship is so much more than either of us ever dreamed it could be.

As far as being the Sentinel is concerned, please, man, don't bury that part of yourself with me. If you do that, then you're burying the single greatest thing I accomplished with my life.

Did you know that, Jim? That you are what I'm most proud of? I know, you were a great cop before the senses came along - before I came along - but I think - hell, I know - that I helped you become an even better one. All my degrees, everything else I've accomplished, they don't mean a thing compared to what we've done together, man. I'm just so damned proud of you.

You are so amazing, Jim. I know I played a role in your becoming what you are today, and I just don't want you to forfeit all that because I'm gone. Carry on, my brother. I'll be watching...and helping when I can.

One last thing, and maybe it goes without saying, but I guess if I'm ever going to say it, this is the time. I love you, Jim. I wish there was another word for how I feel about you because as powerful as those three words are, they still just don't say it all. You've been my brother...my home...my father...my friend...my protector...my confidant...my teacher and my student...but most of all, you've been my Sentinel.

If the measure of a life is how much we have loved, then my life has been lived well. Who can ask for more?

Just remember that, okay? That, in your life, you had at least one person who loved you beyond words, beyond labels and categorization. Who loved you for the unique and special man you are.

The rest of this tape is something different entirely. I know that you may find it difficult to be alone for a while, to rest. That's where this comes in. I'm just going to lie here with the tape going. You need to rest, and knowing you, that's not going to be easy for you.

So keep breathing slow and easy...close your eyes and focus on the sound of my breathing and my heartbeat...rest ...sleep...I'm always with you...I'll always be with you...I'm here, and you can rest...I'm right here, Jim...I'll never leave you.

By the time the tape wound down to its inevitable end, Jim was curled on his side around Blair's pillow, sleeping peacefully.

********************

Jim picked up on the sounds before the elevator door opened.

Something was wrong.

He was already at a full run before he was clear of the elevator.

"I'm sorry, sir. You can't go in there." The physician's assistant moved to block the door to Blair's room, but the young man was no match for the anxious Sentinel. Jim pushed his way past then stopped cold just inside the door. A sea of white surrounded Blair's bed, and Jim barely caught a glimpse of his partner through the crowd of doctors and nurses.

"What's going on?" He searched the faces, finding Dr. Ryan at last. "Tell me."

The doctor broke away from the others, catching Jim by the elbow. "Let's talk." He eased Jim to one corner of the room.

"Blair went into cardiac arrest. We got him back, but his heart's having a tough time keeping him alive. We've intubated him to take some of the strain off his heart." Ryan ran his fingers through his graying hair. "Jim, I'll be honest with you. Without that transplant..."

"How long?" To Jim's ears, his words and those of the doctor seemed to be coming from somewhere far, far off, like the never-ending echo heard in a canyon after you've already screamed yourself hoarse.

Dr. Ryan's voice was compassionate. "Several days...maybe a couple of weeks." He rested a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Look, we're doing all we can to make Blair comfortable under the circumstances. He's awake and aware, and I know it would make it easier on him if you stay with him...be with him. I'll see about getting a rollaway bed in here for you so you can get some rest. I know better than to think you'll be going home for a while."

Jim nodded, mute with shock. How had things gone downhill so fast?

The white coats were dispersing. Only one nurse remained, checking Blair's vital signs and recording the results on her chart. Dr. Ryan released Jim's shoulder. "Go on. Talk to him. Try to reassure him. There's still hope, remember. This sounds a little hard, I'm sure, but now, he's on the top of the transplant list. In a way, this set-back may help him in the end."

A minute later, both Ryan and the nurse were gone, and only the beeps and whirrs of the various machines, accompanied by the frightening sound of the respirator remained. Pulling a chair as close as possible, Jim lowered the rail on Blair's bed, carefully avoiding the miles of tubes and wires coming from his partner, and took Blair's hand between both of his own. Wide blue eyes were locked on his face, eyes bright with fear and confusion, eyes looking to Jim for reassurance and hope.

Summoning every ounce of self-restraint, of strength that he possessed, Jim smiled softly. "Hey there, buddy. Listen, I just spoke with Dr. Ryan They may have explained all this to you, but I think maybe you're still a little in the dark here. Maybe a little scared, and I don't blame you. It's not fun having that tube down your throat - not being able to speak...ask questions."

The fear in those dark blue depths eased slightly, and Blair inclined his head in agreement. Jim smiled again. "Right. So here's the story, Chief. Your heart's struggling some to do all you need it to do. That's why the intubation. This way, it eases the strain some on your heart. Gives it a break, y'know?"

Blair nodded again, and his fingers closed tightly around Jim's hand. Jim squeezed back firmly, enveloping Blair's hand with both of his. "Dr. Ryan says you've been moved up on the list for transplant, so that's good news, right? As soon as a strong new heart comes along, you'll be top on the list. You'll have a new heart, one that is strong and healthy, and you'll be feeling like your old self again."

Jim gazed down into Blair's eyes, seeing the small flicker of hope there. "It's going to be all right, Blair. I'm staying right here with you until the surgery's over and you're feeling better. Dr. Ryan's seeing about bringing in a rollaway for me so I won't have to leave you. I'm not leaving, Chief. You got that?"

Blair squeezed Jim's hand twice and nodded.

"Hey, that's a thought, Chief. You squeeze - or maybe blink - twice for yes, like O.K. and once for no. Think that would work?" Jim felt disproportionately happy at the thought that maybe he'd found a way for them to communicate in spite of Blair's inability to speak.

Two more firm squeeze...and a tiny smile.

Taking a deep breath, Jim released it slowly. "Ah, Blair..." Gently, he touched Blair's face with his fingertips, tracing the contours of his cheekbone, then trailing his fingers down to follow the line of Blair's jaw. "I played the tape," he said simply.

Silently, Blair reached up with his right hand, the IV line hanging down. Sensing what he wanted, Jim leaned down, allowing Blair to cup his face. The dark blue eyes widened slightly, asking what Blair couldn't say with words.

"It helped me sleep," Jim admitted, "something I haven't done in a while now. And the things you said..." He stopped, fighting against his own emotions. It wasn't easy, striking a balance between being open and honest with Blair when he needed it most and preserving a measure of control - for both their sakes. Losing it now would accomplish nothing. It would only frighten Blair and embarrass Jim.

Blair patted his face in silent support then let his hand drift to Jim's shoulder.

"The things you said, Chief, they meant a lot to me. I...I'm not ready to say goodbye to you. Not yet. Not while there's any hope. I can't."

He saw the sadness that clouded Blair's eyes and tried to smile reassuringly. "But saying some things that need to be said, like you did, that doesn't mean you're saying goodbye, does it? It only means that you're making things right, and that's always a positive thing, I guess."

Blair nodded and his fingers curled weakly around the muscles in Jim's shoulder in a gentle massage. "I promise you that I'll always welcome you in my life, no matter how you choose to be there. If..." Jim's throat tightened, and he swallowed hard. "Damn it, this is hard, Sandburg," he whispered.

"If...if things don't work out with the transplant...if you have to leave me...I swear to you, I'll be open to your coming back to me - like Incacha has done. I won't deny you. Ever."

Blair's hand, still held within Jim's tightened, not in their code, but just a firm, steady grip. The younger man's eyes warmed with gratitude, and Jim nodded that he understood.

"What you said about not closing myself off, not shutting out the world, if you should go...well, I'm not sure I can promise that, Blair. I'll try, but that's who I am, Chief. You...changed me. Gave me the strength to open myself up to the world, but if I lose you..."

It was too much. "I'll try," Jim whispered, helplessly. "That's all I can promise. I'll try."

Looking into Blair's eyes, moist with unshed tears, Jim saw that it was enough.

"You said that the years you spent with me were the best of your life," he whispered, forcing himself to keep looking into those eyes. "That works both ways, you know. I was never whole without you, Blair, but I didn't know it. I thought by keeping myself at arm's length, by forcing the world away, I'd protect myself. That I would be content, alone and safe. Then you came along, and my defenses shattered."

Jim smiled sadly, rubbing Blair's knuckles lightly with his thumb and tried to ignore the cold clamminess of the skin beneath his hand. "I've gone up against some of the strongest, the most powerful enemies a man can have and come out on top, yet I have no strength, no defense, when it comes to you, kid. I don't know what will happen to the Sentinel part of me, if you go. I'm not sure there'll be a choice for me to make. But I'll make you a second promise. I'll try. I'll try to carry on what we've begun together. It will be the toughest thing I've ever tried to do, but I will try."

When Blair nodded, again squeezing his hand in acceptance, Jim nodded. "One more thing." He felt the tears building in his eyes but made no effort to fight them back. Sandburg deserved the truth, and if his emotions betrayed him in the process, so be it. They were a part of that truth as well.

"I...I love you, Blair. You're right, it's not enough to say it, but the words are all we have. I'm just sorry..." He swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He'd said all he had the power to say. "I'll try," Jim finished simply.

It was enough.

It was all he had left to give.

********************

The days of waiting were slow, laborious exercises in patience and hope. Friends and co-workers dropped by the hospital daily, wanting to lend their support to both Blair and Jim. Finally, Jim had begun the process of contacting Naomi, but so far, there had been no word. Apparently, she was in the mountains of Tibet on a spiritual retreat, and contact would be difficult. Part of Jim was disappointed, for Blair's sake, but that selfish part of him was relieved. He just didn't know if he had the strength to deal with Naomi.

His days and substantial portions of his nights were spent at the hospital. His worst fear was that he would go home for a few hours sleep and get the phone call. The one that told him that Blair's heart had failed and that his friend was gone. Not to be there when Blair breathed his last breath, not to be there holding his hand, comforting him...that would be the one thing Jim didn't know if he could survive.

So he stayed. Dr. Ryan had given up trying to force Jim to go home and rest, and for that, Jim was thankful. His strength was better spent with Blair than battling doctors.

On the fourth day, Jim looked up from Blair's bedside to see his father and brother standing in the doorway. He looked down at Blair. The younger man was asleep, as he was most of the time, his body simply too exhausted, too weak, to remain awake. The vital signs were as good as he might expect, given the fact that Blair's heart was failing. "I'll be right back," he whispered, patting Blair's hand as he gently laid it on the bed.

Jim motioned them into the hallway, closing the door behind him. He could monitor Blair easily without it remaining open.

"Jim, we've just heard. Why didn't you call us?" Steven seemed genuinely concerned.

He shrugged. "Nothing you could do. We're just waiting."

"You donated your own kidney?" His father's voice was accusingly brittle. "Surely you realize the danger you've put yourself in with that emotional gesture."

"Pop," Steven cautioned, "don't..."

Something in Jim snapped at his father's tone. "Get out, Pop." The elder Ellison took an involuntary step backward as steely blue eyes pinned him to the wall. "If you can't understand what I did and why I did it, then there's no point in your being here. Just get out."

Without a word, William snapped around and marched to the elevator, jabbing the down button.

"Jim, I..."

"It's not your fault, Steven." Jim was so damned tired. He rubbed his eyes wearily. "He just doesn't get it. He'll never get it. I don't know why I still hope he might."

"Blair's your friend," Steven said simply. "You did the right thing."

Jim looked up, grateful for the words and the understanding they implied. "Thank you."

Reaching out, Steven hugged Jim quickly. "I'll come back later - without Pop. Can I bring you anything?"

Pulling back, Jim shook his head, then he patted Steven's shoulder. "Nothing I need right now."

Steven squeezed Jim's arm. "I'll keep hoping and praying. Blair's a great guy, and he's been good for you. I hate to see him suffering like this." Steven studied his brother's face. "You look tired, Jim. Why don't you run home and take a nap?"

Avoiding the issue, Jim started walking slowly to the elevator and Steven followed. "Maybe later," he lied. "Good luck with Dad." He managed a teasing grin. "Just keep the old man away from here, okay?"

"Will do." Steven caught the door as it opened. "I'll be back. You know my cell number. Call if you need anything."

"I will." Jim lifted a hand in farewell. His brother grinned and gave a mock salute as the door closed.

********************

The Sentinel opened his senses to his Guide. It hurt to confront the truth so directly, but the Sentinel's instinctive need to know everything about his Guide's condition overpowered Jim's natural reluctance to face the truth.

And the truth was - Blair was dying.

Even with the help of the ventilator, Blair's skin bore a slightly blue tinge. To the Sentinel's ultra-sensitive touch, he felt clammy and cold. The worst was when he listened to the heartbeat to which he'd grown so accustomed ever since the day Sandburg first entered his life. Thin and irregular, it was obvious that the beloved heart was struggling to survive.

Your Guide grows weaker.

Startled, Jim searched the room for the source of the voice. "Incacha? Where...?"

You may not see me, Enquiri, for your spirit is weary. But you can hear my words...heed my warning. It is not time for your Guide to leave you.

"But he's dying." Jim tightened his hold on Blair's hand. "His body was attacked by a sickness, and it has damaged his heart. Without a new one..."

Yes, he needs a new heart, and they will find one.

"You're saying there's going to be a donor?" Jim's hopes soared.

Your Guide still has much to do, Enquiri.

A weight lifted. Blair was to live. Jim laid one hand alongside Sandburg's cheek. "How long? He's so weak."

Again, he stared around the room, searching for his old Chopec friend. "Incacha, please...Tell me that they'll perform the surgery in time. When?" Adrenaline rushed through his body, and suddenly, there before him on the other side of the bed, stood his old friend and shaman.

Incacha smiled. "Your concern for your Guide makes you strong. Strong enough to see me now. Hello, Enquiri."

Jim bowed his head in the traditional respectful greeting of the Chopec. "It is good of you to come."

Incacha leaned over Blair. "He is truly very weak. The new heart will come soon, my old friend. Do not grieve for your Guide. His spirit is strong, and his devotion to you even stronger. He will not leave you. But you must remember - the gift of his life must be accompanied by great sacrifice. Yet, the sacrifice will be made. Your Guide will live."

Emotionally spent, Jim dropped his head to rest upon their clasped hands. "Thank God," he whispered. "I know that for him to live, another must die, but honestly, that doesn't bother me right now. I...I don't know if I could make it without him, Incacha."

"That is as it should be. It is only within the strength of your bond with each other that Sentinel and Guide can protect each other and their tribe."

Jim raised his head, staring hard at Incacha. "I'm not so sure I've done a very good job of either one."

Incacha's eyes narrowed. "You have been a good Sentinel for this city, Enquiri. You have protected your Guide well."

Jim's laugh was bitter. "Yeah, sure. I've almost lost him so many times..."

"The life of a Guide is no safer than that of the one he serves. You have kept him safe. You sacrificed part of your own body so that he might live. His trust in you is well deserved." Smiling broadly, Incacha added, "I am proud of you, Enquiri. You honor me."

The shaman took a step away from the bed, his image beginning to flicker and fade. "You are his protector. Take care of him, Sentinel, and he will guide you well."

And he was gone.

Simultaneously, the heart monitor's reassuring beep faltered once, then twice.

Reaching out with a trembling hand, the Sentinel gathered his Guide's hand in his, warming it between his two palms. "No! Do you hear me, Guide? You may not leave me. You do not have my blessing to go. I still need you here with me. It is not your time. There is still hope, Blair. You're going to be all right. Incacha was here, and he said so. You know you don't want to argue with Incacha, right? I sure as hell don't. So, just hang on a little longer."

Again, the beeping grew steady, and Jim relaxed.

A nurse appeared at the doorway, and she turned on a light. "There was an abnormal fluctuation in the monitor," she said, checking the wires and electrodes.

"It stopped almost as soon as it began," Jim said softly. "He's all right now."

Silently, the nurse flipped off the lights again and left.

Turning his attention totally to his partner, Jim leaned over Blair. In the background, the machines whirred and beeped, but he tuned each noise out with the precision of a skilled surgeon. Focusing on the familiar beating sound of his Guide's heart, Jim murmured, "How will your new heart sound, Chief? Will I still know you then, just from the sound of your heartbeat? Will I be able to tell if you're okay, if you're scared or in danger from the sound of your heart? And if I can't..."

His mind was going in circles. Too tired and worried to think clearly, Jim took a long, deep breath. He should go home, should get some rest.

Yeah...

Jim tucked a spare pillow on the thin mattress beside Sandburg and wearily laid his head down, still monitoring the sound of his Guide's failing heart.

A few minutes later, the Sentinel was asleep.

********************

When Blair awoke over the next few days, it was only for brief periods. Tired eyes would flutter open, searching immediately for Jim's face.

And he was always there. Day or night, Jim stayed at Blair's bedside. During those brief moments of awareness, Jim would murmur reassurances, holding Blair's hand. He wasn't sure even then if Sandburg really heard him. He felt that Blair was already slipping away from him, poised somewhere on the borderline between this world and the next. But Jim was determined to keep him in this world until Incacha's promised donor organ came through.

The constant vigilance took its toll on Ellison. Too worried to eat decently, Jim dropped enough weight to make his face appear gaunt. Dr. Ryan was watching him, he knew, and it wouldn't be long before Blair's physician ordered him home again to rest.

Simon beat him to it.

"You're exhausted, Jim. Physically and emotionally." Banks fixed Jim with his sternest captain's stare. "I'm surprised you're not already checked in as a patient yourself."

Jim glanced up from his usual seat at Blair's bedside. He thought of arguing, but that would take too much energy. Instead, he tucked the sheet a little higher over Blair's shoulders.

"Tomorrow's Saturday, and I'm off duty. Let me stay here with him tonight. You go home and rest. Take a shower. Come back tomorrow morning, and I'll go home then." Simon's eyes softened with compassion. "I know you don't want to leave him alone, Jim. I promise I won't leave this room until you get back. You can trust me with him, Jim. You know that. You're going to have to trust someone or you won't make it through this yourself."

Although he didn't look up, Simon's words rang deep within Jim. His friend was right. It did come down to a matter of trust. Wasn't that exactly what Blair had worked so hard to get through to him all these years? Well, he trusted Blair. With his life. Didn't he trust Simon as well? With his own life, yes. No question. But with Blair's life? Jim watched the heart monitor, mesmerized by the visible sign of his partner's still-beating heart.

"Jim?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. I trust you, Simon. I'll go home for a while." He stood up, stretching his legs. "But you promise me that if anything happens, anything at all, you'll call?"

"Of course." Simon grasped his elbow, steering him to the door. "I don't want to see your face at this hospital again until at least nine tomorrow morning. Got it?"

"Not before seven anyway," Jim agreed, checking Blair once more. No change. The younger man was still in a deep sleep.

The sleep of the dying...

No! Don't think that way. Remember what Incacha said. He's going to be all right.

"Jim? You okay?" Worried brown eyes studied him carefully.

Stepping out the door, Jim nodded. "Fine. Thank you, sir."

He listened to Blair's weak heart all the way to his truck.

"Night, Chief," Jim whispered, staring for a moment up at the window of the room where he knew Blair was sleeping. "See you in the morning. You got that? I will see you in the morning."

********************

A dreamless sleep enveloped Jim almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Outside, the rain fell constantly, heavily, drumming on the loft roof in a percussive night rhythm. The post-midnight streets were quiet, glistening damply beneath dim streetlamps, empty save for alley cats, alcoholics, and ladies of the evening. Jim lay unmoving, sprawled beneath a single thin sheet, his arms flung out in an unknowing gesture of surrender. The loft was silent...peaceful...at rest.

The jangling of the phone startled Jim awake shortly after three A.M. He shot upright in the bed, eyes wide, as he grabbed for the receiver. "Ellison!"

"Jim...it's Simon." The captain's voice was tight, barely contained. "You...you'd better get down here."

Sagging, his shoulders hunched as though struck in the gut, Jim shut his eyes against the sudden panic. "Oh, my God... Sandburg...?"

But if Simon heard, he didn't answer. Jim heard him talking to voices in the background - anxious, hurried voices. Jim could hear the heavy exaltation of breath as Simon came back on the line. "Jim, just get here, okay? I'll explain it all. Meet me in the ER."

Less than five minutes later, Jim was bolting down the stairs, buttoning his shirt as he went. "Hang on, Chief," he chanted in a monotone that, had his mind been clearer, he would have realized resembled one of Blair's meditation mantras. "Just hang on for me a little longer."

********************

Jim burst through the ER doors at a full run, already zeroed in on Simon's unique scent, a blend of his favorite aftershave, the cheese danish he frequently enjoyed as an afternoon snack, and of course, the lingering tang of cigars. Banks was sitting on one of the narrow leatherette couches that passed for a touch of comfort in the stark waiting area. He looked up as Jim barged in, an expression of dread in his warm dark eyes.

"Simon! What happened? Why's Blair in the ER?" Jim began playing out his sense of hearing, trying to catch the sound of Blair's heartbeat. He couldn't get a fix on it, and his breath caught in his throat. Oh, God...no...

Simon jumped to his feet and grasped Jim's upper arms firmly. "No, Jim, it's not Blair. I'm sorry...I didn't have time to explain. The doctors were..."

Jim sagged against the concrete block wall. "Not Blair?" His thoughts were confused, and he couldn't seem to focus.

"No." Simon's voice was gentle. "Come sit down." He grasped Jim's elbow and steered him firmly to the same couch he'd just vacated.

Compliantly, Jim allowed himself to be Guided by his captain and sat down beside him. Blair wasn't the one. So who...?

"Sandburg's okay?" He needed to confirm it once more, just to be sure.

"Yes, he's still sleeping. No change."

Jim took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Tell me." He felt the familiar sense of control return, and with it, his strength. As long as it wasn't Blair, he could face anything.

Still, the words shook him to his core.

"Jim, it's Steven. Your brother's been injured, and it's serious. Critical."

"Steven?" Jim stared at his captain, uncomprehending. "Steven's hurt?"

"Yes, he..."

Jim looked up, following Simon's gaze, to the man dressed in blue surgical garb standing before them. He was of Asian descent, about Blair's height, with streaks of gray punctuating his jet black hair.

"I'm Dr. Kai. Are you family?"

Jim nodded. "Are you treating my brother?"

Simon stood, introducing them. "Jim Ellison, this is Anthony Kai. He's in charge of Steven's case. Jim is Steven's brother, Doctor." Simon squeezed Jim's shoulder. "We haven't contacted your father, Jim. We thought it best that you do that. It's very late, and..."

"Thank you, Simon." Turning his attention to the doctor, he asked, "What happened? What's his condition?"

Dr. Kai sat down in a chair opposite the couch where Jim and Simon sat back down. "From what I understand, it was a hit and run. Your brother was working late and walking across the street to the parking garage."

"The officers on the scene recognized Steven's last name and found you listed as emergency contact. They phoned me, figuring I should be the one to tell you this, Jim. The guy was drunk," Simon explained solemnly. "Our boys located the car parked on the side of the road shortly after. The bastard blew over two times the legal limit. There was no sign he even tried to stop. He...Steven was hit head-on, Jim. He was thrown over the car and landed on the street. By the time the ambulance got there, Steven wasn't breathing. They revived him, but..."

"We don't know how long his brain was deprived of oxygen, Detective Ellison," Kai said gently. "We operated to repair some internal damage, but when we tried to take him off the respirator, he was unable to breathe on his own."

Jim's pulse pounded in his temples, and before his eyes, the room shifted and swirled like those crazy colors and shapes in kaleidoscopes. The doctor's voice registered, his words made sense, but it sounded a long distance away, as if coming to Jim across a great abyss, echoing on...and on...and on.

"We did a brain scan and other tests. I'm afraid your brother's cognitive function is negligible. This isn't easy to hear, but there's no hope of regaining any meaningful function. If we turn off the machines keeping him alive, his heart will soon stop and he'll be gone."

"He's brain dead." Jim heard his own voice echo against the sides of the well, flat and devoid of emotion.

"That is the commonly used term, yes," Dr. Kai said gently. "We pulled up your brother's previous hospital records and found he had a living will. It clearly states that it wasn't his wish to be kept alive by machines."

Jim's head slowly nodded. "Yeah. He told me that once. We hadn't been close for a long time. The last couple of years, though..." Jim drew a shuddering breath. "We were talking more. Blair saw to it that we..."

Suddenly, it was all too much, and his wall of carefully contained emotions came crashing inward, bombarding Jim with feelings he wasn't sure he could control.

Sandburg lying upstairs, barely clinging to life. Steven...brain dead...unable to breathe...only a shell of what he had once been. "Oh, God," he whispered. "First Blair...now Steven..."

Simon's hand was heavy on his shoulder. "I know, Jim. I know. But Blair's still alive. Hold onto that. He's upstairs right now - alive."

"Detective Ellison? Even though your brother had a medical directive, we prefer to wait until the family is ready to carry out his final directive..." He waited.

"I can't make that decision without my father." The reply was automatic.

"Of course. Would you like to bring him here now or wait until morning? There is no hurry. Take all the time you need. If there are other family members..."

"No. Just my father and me. We're all that's left. I'll..." Jim stopped, unable to imagine how he was supposed to do this. "I'll go to his house and bring him here now. He would want to be here...to know."

Simon stood up. "Jim? Why don't you call your dad? Tell him what's happened. I'll go pick him up, and you can spend some time alone with Steven. Or with Blair, if you'd rather wait to see your brother once your father gets here. Let me do this for you, okay?"

Jim considered. He really didn't want to leave the hospital, leave Blair and Steven alone. His father knew Simon, respected him. "All right. Thanks, Simon."

"You may use my office phone." Dr. Kai stood up and gestured down the hall. "Second hall on the left. Number 414. It's open. When you're ready to see your brother, just tell the charge nurse and she'll page me."

A few minutes later, in the privacy of the doctor's office, William Ellison's voice resounded sleepily in Jim's ear.

"Dad? It's Jim. I have some bad news..."

********************

"Hey, Chief." Jim squeezed Blair's hand as he tucked the blanket up around his friend's shoulders. "Told you I'd be back soon."

He hoped his voice wouldn't betray him. Blair had been awake when he'd arrived, weak and drowsy, but awake.

Unable to speak for the respirator helping him breathe, Blair's dark blue eyes, huge in his drawn, pale face, searched Jim's face.

"Nothing yet, buddy, but that doesn't mean the call won't come tomorrow. Remember what Incacha told me. You're going to be just fine."

Almost imperceptibly, Blair nodded. But his eyes narrowed, puzzled. Slowly, his arm emerged from beneath the covers and came up to Jim's face. Cold fingers brushed Jim's cheek tenderly, the gesture and those emotion-filled eyes asking the questions his voice could not. Curving slightly, Blair cupped Jim's face.

Unable to resist that supportive offering, Jim's eyes closed helplessly as he leaned into his Guide's touch. He knew what Blair was asking. What's wrong, man? Talk to me, Jim.

But he couldn't tell his best friend the devastating news, couldn't add that burden to those fragile shoulders. He sat there quietly for a few moments, mustering his strength. Finally, Jim opened his eyes and managed to smile down at his friend. Pressing his hand over Blair's against his cheek, he said quietly, "I'm just tired, Chief. Couldn't sleep, so I came back here. I'm okay."

Weary, yet tremendously expressive, Blair's eyes studied him intently. At last, accepting what he saw there, Blair nodded.

"You're tired, too, aren't you, buddy?" Jim guided Blair's arm back to the mattress, but he let his hand stay there, gently stroking up and down his arm in a soothing gesture. "Rest now. I'm going to step out for just a while, but I'll be back soon. I promise. I'll stay until you fall asleep. Rest now, Chief. It's okay. Shhhhh...."

Focusing on Blair's face, Jim wouldn't allow himself to hear the hauntingly weak sound of his Guide's failing heart. He knew it was there, knew that there couldn't be many more days left in that valiant heart, but tonight...

Tonight, Jim wasn't strong enough to hear it. He replayed Incacha's words in his mind, clinging to the hope they offered.

The new heart will come soon, my old friend. Do not grieve for your Guide. His spirit is strong, and his devotion to you even stronger. He will not leave you.

"I'm holding you to that, Incacha," Jim whispered, somehow certain the Chopec's unconquerable spirit was nearby. "Watch after him while I'm gone."

Brushing a stray lock of hair back from Blair's pale face, Jim let his hand linger for a moment on his friend's forehead. "It's okay, Blair. Rest now. I'll be back as soon as I can."

********************

Jim sensed his father's presence even before entering the private waiting area down the hall from the main E.R. He could hear the pacing steps, summoning up memories of childhood - a young boy listening from behind closed doors to the sound of his father's steps as he paced the length of his study, then back again. His father had always preferred to think on his feet, and both he and Steven knew better than to disturb William Ellison as long as the pacing continued.

Above the antiseptic smells of the hospital, Jim caught a whiff of his father's cologne, the same brand he'd worn since Jim was a child. His father was a man of habit. The scent stirred long-ago memories. Sandburg was right, Jim reflected, pausing before the closed door. Scent was the most powerful memory sense. He remembered discovering his father's scent in the air as a child and the feeling of dread that so often accompanied it. The same feeling was grinding in his gut right now.

"You want me to wait out here?" Simon's question was soft, but Jim heard the offer hidden behind the words. His friend was willing to remain at his side, and for that, Jim was grateful. Simon was a good friend.

"No. I'll handle it. Why don't you go on home? You need some sleep. What time is it anyway?" Jim glanced at the clock on the wall. Damn. It was nearly four A.M.

Simon shrugged. "Hardly worth it. I'll be fine."

Jim considered. "Then come on in. Might make it a bit easier to have you there. Facing the old man is never a picnic."

********************

Simon was struck once again by the physical resemblance between father and son. Both were tall, and the same clear blue eyes shone brightly with intelligence. Maybe they're just too much alike, he mused. They bring out the worst qualities in each other because the same weaknesses lie within them both. But he didn't have long to ponder the uneasy relationship between Jim and his father. William was already striding across the room, eyes locked on his son.

"Where is Stevie? Why can't I see him?" Anger, barely restrained, lay tense beneath every word.

"Dr. Kai was waiting for us to go in together." Jim hesitated, and Simon heard the catch in his voice, although apparently, his father did not. "We have some decisions to make."

"I won't believe Steven's beyond hope!" William pounced on Jim's words, an angry predator ambushing unsuspecting prey. "Medical science doesn't know everything! I want specialists called in on this. We'll to run every test in the book. I will not giving your brother up so easily, Jimmy!"

There was a sound at the door, and Dr. Kai stepped into the small waiting room. "Why don't you come see Steven, Mr. Ellison? Then we can talk about the future."

That seemed to pacify William. The three men followed the doctor down the hall, up to the fifth floor, and to room 506. They paused outside the door as Kai explained what they would find on the other side.

"He's on life support, Mr. Ellison. That means there are a lot of machines in there, breathing for him and keeping him alive. There are other machines monitoring his vital signs."

"So he is alive?" The hope in William's voice stabbed at Simon's heart as he empathized with another father facing the loss of his child.

Carefully, Kai explained. "His body is alive, but only because of the machines. When Steven was brought in, the ambulance crew was bagging him, essentially breathing for him. We hooked him up to the ventilator before we knew he had left a medical directive."

"So without the machines...?" Jim's quiet question hung heavily in the air.

Kai's black eyes were sympathetic, but his words left no room for doubt. "If we turn off the machines, Steven's body will not be able to survive. He suffered severe head trauma, and on top of that, he was without oxygen for an indeterminate amount of time. We've already cut off the ventilator twice, to check his ability to breathe on his own, but..."

Dr. Kai shook his head regretfully. "His brain no longer functions even at the most basic level needed to maintain life. I'm sorry, but your son is already gone, Mr. Ellison. All you'll see in there is his body, being kept alive by technology."

William stared at the door. "I'll judge that for myself."

He opened the door and stepped inside. Jim shook his head at Simon, indicating that he should remain outside.

When they were gone, Dr. Kai turned to Banks. "There's one other thing, and I don't think Detective Ellison has even thought of it yet. Steven Ellison left directions in his Living Will that he wished to be an organ donor. I know of Blair Sandburg's case, Captain Banks, and I know that Jim was a kidney donor for the young man. If his tissues were a close enough match for that donation, then the odds are good that Steven might be able to provide the heart that Blair needs."

Simon's breath caught in his throat and words wouldn't come. Blair might yet survive. But at what cost? The life of Jim's own brother?

"I've taken the liberty of contacting Mr. Sandburg's physician, Dr. Ryan. He's already getting in touch with the organ donation center. As you may know, there's a prioritized list, but in cases like this..." Dr. Kai said quietly, "As I understand it, Dr. Sandburg's condition is grave enough to put his name close to the top of the list, and in cases where there is a possible donor from the immediate family or from close friends, arrangements can usually be made."

"I see..." Simon glanced at the closed door. "Who makes the decision as to when to...turn off life support?"

"Since Steven had a living will, we can technically do that at any time. We prefer to wait for the family to reach the point where they are comfortable with the decision." Dr. Kai studied Simon frankly. "You're a good friend of Jim's?"

"Yes. His boss, but also his friend."

"Then you should know that Dr. Ryan doesn't think Mr. Sandburg has a great deal of time left. There will come a point where the transplant will be considered too great a risk - no longer viable. At that point, they'll remove him from the transplant list and Steven's heart will not be a possibility."

Dr. Kai drew a deep breath. "This may sound harsh, but if you have any influence with the family, you should help them along in their decision to terminate life support. If there's a chance to save Blair Sandburg's life, it lies within Steven Ellison. To save one life, we must let the other go."

********************

The scene was eerily familiar to Jim, except the patient lying so absolutely still in the bed wasn't his Guide, but his brother. He moved slowly to one side of Steven's bed, eyeing the conglomeration of machines clustered around.

Machines are keeping him alive. Damn it, Steven, we were just getting to know each other for the first time in our adult lives. Why the hell did you have to work late last night? You took after Pop, didn't you? A regular type-A workaholic.

He eyed his father, standing silently on the other side of the bed. The green glow of the monitors cast a sickly tinge to his father's face.

You look old, Pop. Old and worn out. A man's not supposed to outlive his son, isn't he? Do you regret all those years of bitterness now? Would you regret them if I were lying here instead of Stevie? I should be the one here, after all. I'm the cop. He's just a businessman. That shouldn't have gotten him killed. Me, now, that would be logical. Expected. I'm sorry, Stevie. Sorry it was you.

Jim looked down at his brother, bandaged, cut, and bruised, and lying oh, so still, wishing he could say the words that dwelled silently in his heart. Not in front of the old man, though he doubted that Steven would hear him. Later he would find a way and a time to say good-bye. At least with Stevie, there would be time for good-byes. Too many of those he cared about had left without that chance. He wouldn't waste the opportunity this time.

"He looks like he's asleep."

His father's words interrupted his reverie, and Jim pulled back from his thoughts. "Yes, he does. But he's not, Dad. He's already...gone."

William shook his head. "Ellisons aren't quitters," he said bitterly. "You both managed to inherit that trait from my side of the family. I won't give up on Steven. Not yet."

They remained at Steven's bedside for a long time, each lost within his own thoughts and emotions.

********************

When Jim emerged from Steven's room, Simon grasped his arm. "We need to talk."

Moments later, they found a quiet waiting area. Dawn was breaking, tinting the sky outside with light, even though gray clouds obscured the sun and the air hinted of rain. Sometimes Jim questioned why he remained in Cascade. Was it because the weather so often reflected his own stormy emotions?

"I can't believe you haven't already thought of it," Simon mused as he settled into an ugly orange plastic chair.

Jim was tired, perhaps more exhausted than he ever remembered. "I've been a little preoccupied," he bristled, scrubbing one hand over his face. He needed a shave. Had he shaved yesterday? Oh, yeah. Last night. He'd had a shower and a shave. But already, he could feel the prickly whiskers reminding him that yet another night had been spent in Cascade General.

"I know." Simon's voice was kindly understanding. "Still..."

"Think of what?" Jim's words were clipped. He was barely reigning it in. If Simon expected him to have his mind on some case, his boss had better...

"You were a tissue match for Blair, right?"

"Of course. What does that...?"

"Dr. Kai says that Steven included organ donation in his living will. If you're a match, there's a good chance..."

Jim shot to his feet. He stared down at Simon, trying to wrap his tired mind around the incomprehensible idea. "Kai thinks that Steven could...?" He couldn't finish the sentence as a painful spasm clinched his heart.

Unaware that he was a living imitation of his father, Jim paced the small waiting area, a caged animal unable to restrain his own sudden surge of energy.

Oh, God...Steven's already gone. Blair needs a heart transplant. Steven wanted to be a donor. He'd already signed the card. Incacha, you knew...you knew it would be Steven, but you didn't tell me. You told me that his life would be spared but at great cost...a great sacrifice. But you didn't tell me that the sacrifice would be my own brother. Why didn't you tell me? If you had, what would I have done? Would I have allowed it to happen? Would I have warned Steven? Would I have saved my own brother at the cost of Blair's life? Or...would I have allowed Steven to die in order to save Blair? As much as I love Blair, would I have been capable of making that choice? Could I have allowed my brother to die even for Blair? Is that why you didn't tell me, Incacha? So I didn't have to face that impossible decision?

With the clarity of peering through pure crystal, Jim understood in an instant that he would wrestle with that unanswerable question for the rest of his life.

********************

The heavy clouds that had been gathering all morning reached their saturation point shortly before noon and the deluge began. Rain hammered Cascade mercilessly, drenching the city with no sign of stopping. Appropriate weather, Jim thought, glancing out the window of the room where his brother lay unmoving...unthinking...

Turning from the window, Jim told his father, "Pop, let's go down to the cafeteria and get some lunch. We need to talk."

********************

Sniffing the air, Jim decided the chicken soup might be the least offensive choice of the hospital cafeteria options. At least he might be able to swallow a portion of it without choking. His father settled on beef stew, although he ate little, resorting instead to pushing it around on his plate. Jim waited until he could stomach no more soup before speaking.

"Pop..."

His father looked up, his eyes unreadable, but he didn't speak.

"Steven left a Living Will; you know that, right?"

William nodded, his eyes not leaving the stew. Still no reply.

"We have to make a decision here. It's obvious he didn't want to be kept alive this way. He made that plain. Don't you think it's time...?"

"No." His father's voice was flat. "Not yet."

"Why not? What's the point in waiting?" Jim's frustration was building. He didn't want Steven to die, but his brother was already gone. Why was his father insisting on postponing the inevitable?

"Because I don't believe he's really gone. Doctors don't know everything. They can be wrong." William stared hard at Jim. "Why the big rush? What aren't you telling me?"

Trying to gauge his father's possible reaction, Jim searched in vain for the right words, the words that would convince his father that this was the right thing to do. That it was what Steven would have wanted. "Dad...In his Living Will and on his driver's license, Steven indicated that he wanted to be an organ donor. It was important enough to him to spell it out specifically both times."

"Isn't it a bit early to be distributing your brother's organs?" William's voice rose angrily. "He isn't dead yet!"

Other people were beginning to look their way. Jim kept his voice low. "There are people waiting for transplants. People who may die while..." His voice wavered and he swallowed hard, striving for control. "People who could die while you keep Steven's body alive on those damned machines." Jim clamped both hands tightly around his coffee cup to keep them from shaking.

The gesture was too late to keep his father from noticing, however. He stared first at Jim's hands then at his son's tense face. "There's something more, isn't there?"

Jim couldn't answer, couldn't find the words for all he needed to explain to his father.

Slowly, understanding dawned, and William's angry eyes pinned Jim accusingly. "It's Sandburg, isn't it? Damn it! Steven told me he was waiting on a heart transplant!"

The entire cafeteria was staring at them now, but William didn't seem to notice. "You want me to kill your own brother to save the life of that hippie! He's not family, Jim! Your real family is lying up there in that hospital bed, and you're asking me to kill him to save Blair Sandburg!" William stood up, his voice shaking. "I can't believe you are my son!"

Jim was on his feet simultaneously. "Yes! I want to save Blair! But it's not killing Steven! He's already dead! You're just keeping the shell alive, Pop! Let him go! He didn't want this! You've got to let him go!"

Bellowing, his eyes blazing, William strode toward the door. "No! You'll not sacrifice my son!"

"You're sacrificing my best friend!" Jim's rage poured out, and with it, all the frustrations and fears he'd held contained since Blair had fallen ill. From the corner of his eyes, he spotted the burly security guard approaching, and he knew the confrontation was at an end.

"It's all right. I'm leaving." Jim bolted from the cafeteria and down the hall, his breath coming in short, labored bursts. He hit the exit door with both hands and plunged into the pouring rain.

Without slowing, the Sentinel ran into the parking lot, then beyond. The rain beat down on him, soaking him to the skin, but Jim barely noticed. His pounding feet dug into the soggy earth as he cleared the pavement.

A small park designed for peaceful meditation lay just off the hospital's parking lot. Jim found himself stopped by a tall hedge and spun around, disoriented and confused. The dim glare from the cloud-smothered sun burned his eyes; each raindrop was a needle pricking his hyper-sensitive skin. Pattering rain thundered in his ears. Unable to bear the chaos of uncontrolled sensory input, Jim staggered forward and fell heavily to his knees.

"Nooooo!!" Lifting his face to meet the stinging drops of rain, the Sentinel welcomed the pain even as he roared his denial. It couldn't all end this way, not when there was still a chance of saving his Guide. Why the hell couldn't his father understand? But they'd never understood each other, not in the years of his youth and certainly not once he'd become an adult.

Burying his face in his hands, Jim allowed the emotions held carefully in check for so long to pour forth. Hot tears merged with cold rain as powerful shoulders shook with sobs too long restrained.

It was too much. Blair was dying...Steven was already dead in every way that mattered. And he hadn't been able to save either one. They were both going to die.

Just like his men in Peru...

Just like Danny Choi...

Just like Lila...

Just like Jack Pendergrast...

The dark afternoon skies cried upon the fallen form as in the distance, thunder rolled across the earth.

When would the dying stop?

********************

Simon watched from Blair's window as the familiar figure dashed from the hospital dining room exit door into the pouring rain, and his heart went out to his friend. He'd been worried that things wouldn't go easily with William, and obviously, his premonition had been right.

He watched as Jim entered into the small park opposite the hospital, then shut his eyes when he saw Jim fall to his knees in the muddy mire. "Damn you, Mr. Ellison," Simon murmured, the curse aimed at the father who so often managed to cause such pain for his son.

With a backward glance at Sandburg, Simon left the darkened room, carefully pulling the door closed behind him.

********************

The door to Steven's room was half open, revealing the silhouette of William Ellison sitting beside his son's bed. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Simon stepped in.

The whirrs and beeps of life support equipment and monitors drowned out the sound of the rain. Simon stepped over to the window, looking out at the small park. Jim was gone. He wondered absently if he'd gone home for dry clothes and hoped that he had. He really didn't want Jim to hear any of this.

"I suppose you've come to convince me to let my son die as well," William commented dryly, his eyes never leaving the face of his son.

"On the contrary, I've come to plead for his life."

Blue eyes shot up to meet brown ones.

"Not Steven's life. I'm afraid that has already been taken from him. I'm asking you to save Jim's life. If you care about your son, you'll do this for Jim."

William's eyes flared angrily. "How dare you speak to me..."

"I dare because I'm Jim's friend. It's his life I'm asking you to spare."

"Jim's fine. Jim's always going to be all right."

"That's where you are wrong," Simon snapped. "Jim's not the invincible one, Mr. Ellison. He's far more fragile than you realize."

He strode forward to stand over Ellison. Looking down, he read the confusion in the other man's expression and pressed on. "Jim could insist that Dr. Kai go ahead and turn off life-support, but he won't do that. He's far too honorable. He knows that's your right as Steven's father. But if you delay and Sandburg dies, you must understand one thing. You'll be killing Jim, destroying him as completely as if you'd taken a gun and shot him in the heart."

Ellison blinked quickly, his brow furrowed. "I just can't understand how that young man can possibly mean so much to him." There was a genuine tone of confusion in the older man's voice, but Simon didn't allow his own tone to soften.

"I can't say I understand completely myself, but that's not important. What does matter is that your son and Blair Sandburg have forged a bond that transcends anything I've ever witnessed before. I don't think anyone on the outside can understand it. I'm sure Jim doesn't expect you to, but I know he'd like for you to accept it, to respect it."

"Bottom line, Mr. Ellison. Steven didn't want machines keeping him alive. That was the last thing he would have wanted. What he did want was for his eventual death to have some redeeming value. That's why he left specific instructions that he wanted to give others the opportunity for life by being an organ donor. Right now, you are standing in the way of both those wishes."

Simon dropped to squat on the floor by William's chair so that they were eye-to-eye. "If you want to salvage something from this whole tragic mess, let Steven go now before it's too late for Blair. Give the gift of his life to Jim. Nothing you could ever do for him as long as you live could ever mean more."

He paused, staring intently into the blue eyes that were so like Jim's. "It might even make up for a hell of a lot of water that's already passed under the bridge, Mr. Ellison."

When there was no sign of Ellison's resolve wavering, Simon played his trump card. "At least come see Sandburg. How can you make a decision like this without doing that much?"

After what seemed an eternity, the older man nodded. "All right. I'll go with you to see him. It will not change my mind, I assure you, but I suppose I owe Jim that much."

Simon stood and walked with him to the door. "He's a very special young man, Mr. Ellison. Try to look beyond the exterior and maybe you'll see a little of what has drawn Jim to Blair."

Ellison's voice was flat. "I doubt that, Captain Banks. I doubt it very much."

********************

The room was darkened, blinds drawn, the only sounds those of monitors and muted noises from the hallway. William was aware of Banks standing quietly in the corner of the room, but the man's presence barely registered. His complete attention was focused on the young man lying in the hospital bed, machines seemingly hooked up to every exposed inch of skin. The respirator had been removed a few hours before, allowing his lungs the opportunity to function on their own, but nurses carefully monitored his heart in case the strain became too much.

William studied the pale face resting on the thin pillow. Blair's pallor was even more obvious against the white pillow case; they were nearly the same blanched hue.

What was it about this man that had so captivated his son? Were they lovers? Banks had insisted they were not when William blatantly quizzed him about it on the elevator ride to this floor. As much as he would have loathed that particular truth, at least it would have been an explanation he could comprehend.

If not lovers, then...what?

Frankly curious, William applied his logical mind to the study of Blair Sandburg. The young man was handsome in a very sensual way. Full lips, dark brows arching over what he remembered were eyes of sapphire blue...finely sculptured facial features that, while very masculine, also held a hint of innocence.

Jim had always been one to protect. William smiled at the memories. Every stray animal that found its way to their neighborhood somehow ended up in Jim's care, often to his chagrin.

A memory of Jim at about age ten played out in William's mind. The little girl next door - Suzie? - had fallen from her tricycle. William had seen Jim from his office window, kneeling on the ground, holding a handkerchief to the little girl's bleeding knee. Suzie's mom had commented later how well Jim had tended to the child, keeping her calm until her mother arrived on the scene. It seemed his son was incapable of turning away anything - or anyone - in need. Was that part of the equation with Sandburg?

Even beneath the thin bedding, it was obvious the young man was strong. He'd taken care of himself for years, William remembered Jim telling him once. Surely such a man didn't need his son for protection.

And yet...

William recalled the few times he'd seen Jim and Blair together. The last time, they'd been at the funeral of an old family friend. Apparently, Sandburg had been fighting a headache, a rather painful one from the looks of it. William had seen the concerned looks Jim gave his friend, the way he managed to remain in almost constant physical contact with a hand on Blair's back or their shoulders barely touching while standing together at the graveside.

There was definitely a sense of protectiveness about Jim where Blair Sandburg was concerned.

"What hold do you have on my son?" he whispered, searching the sleeping face. Behind closed lids, Blair's eyes flickered as he dreamed. "Why do you matter so much to him?"

Sacrifices 4

"He matters because of who he is, Dad. Because of what he is and what I am when he's in my life."

Jim appeared on the other side of the bed, moving quietly to stand beside the sleeping man. He reached out to trail fingers lightly over the tangled curls. "I'm a better person because of him. He came to me at a time in my life when I was falling apart, Pop. My Sentinel senses had come to me full-force, and it was completely overwhelming. I couldn't control them. You never saw any of it because I wouldn't allow you to see the weakness in me. I knew you would despise me for being weak, being vulnerable, and I was too proud to let you see me hurting. But that's how Blair found me - falling to pieces and completely helpless to stop it."

The words took William off-guard. Jimmy? Weak...helpless...vulnerable? Not words he would associate with his strong and capable son. His curiosity piqued, William remained quiet, watching Jim as he touched his friend, and listened.

It seemed so natural to Jim, touching another man that way. Nothing sexual about it at all, yet there was an intensity, a passion, there that defied description. It was, William thought, the most tender look he'd ever seen on Jim's face, in his eyes.

Jim's hand moved from Blair's head to his shoulder, squeezing, massaging gently. "Hey, Chief," he whispered. "I'm here...I'm back. Everything's okay." Jim bent low, searching Blair's face, his words quiet and calm. His other hand moved to Sandburg's face, cupping his cheek within his palm. The younger man stirred slightly, leaning into the touch of Jim's hand, but he didn't awaken.

Pure trust. Even asleep - dying - Sandburg sensed Jim's presence and gave himself to that trust. Jim smiled softly, still murmuring. "That's right, buddy. It's me. I'm right here. Shhhh...it's going to be all right."

The connection between them was almost tangible, glimmering threads of spun gold, and William struggled to comprehend something so foreign.

Had he ever loved anyone that much? Trusted another so implicitly? He felt a twinge of regret because he knew the answer in the most private corners of his soul.

What would it do to Jim if he lost this young man? Watching them now, William couldn't even imagine the ramifications.

Jim's eyes raised to look at him across the bed. Was their sudden glistening the shimmer of tears? "If you want me to beg, I will. Please, Pop. Steven's already gone. I wish it had never happened, but it did. Please, don't punish Blair for whatever has always been wrong between us. Let Steven go. It's what he wanted. Let him go now, and his death will at least have some meaning. He liked Blair, you know. This would be what he'd want."

William felt Simon Banks' presence behind him. A strong hand descended on his shoulder, lending silent support.

Once again, William looked down at the young face. Such a combination of innocence and strength...intelligence and humor... compassion and conviction.

Steven was gone. Even in his stubbornness and grief, he couldn't deny that truth. Jim could fight for life support to be terminated, yet he risked the life of this friend, obviously so very dear to him, so that his father could be at peace with that decision. He couldn't allow Jim to make that sacrifice. He had delayed too long already.

"Tell Dr. Kai that I'm ready to proceed. Once we've had the chance to...say good-bye...to his brother, we'll...let Steven go. If Sandburg can...benefit...from what's happened to Stevie, then...Dr. Kai should let his doctor know that it's okay. I won't stand in the way."

William felt Banks' hand close hard on his shoulder. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you..." Simon walked to the door, taking time to give Jim a quick pat on the back on the way out. "I'll find Dr. Kai, then I'll be back to stay with Blair while you're gone."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim said quietly, his eyes locked on his father. Once Simon was gone, he asked simply, "Why?"

William answered slowly. "Because you're right. It's what Stevie would have wanted. Because there is something...special... about him, isn't there? Something you've seen all along."

Jim looked down at his sleeping friend and nodded. "Yes, there is." He stopped, then continued, his voice husky and dark. "He was already part of me before all this happened. Now he carries a physical part of me inside."

Inexplicably, William felt no anger, no resentment at Jim's words about his friend. Maybe he was just too old, too tired, to fight any more. But more than that, the desire had vanished. Jim loved this young man as his brother, his best friend, and he had somehow accepted that fact. He had let go of his resentment.

Now he had to find a way to let go of Steven.

********************

Jim finished changing into the dry clothes he'd had stashed in the truck in case he needed them on the job. Lucky for him he had them there. No way was he leaving the hospital for the loft. Not any time soon.

He stared at his reflection in the men's room mirror. For an instant, he didn't recognize the image there. He looked old. Tired and used up. Little lines that surely hadn't been there a few days ago were etched around his eyes. He felt the strength of his emotions building, and Jim instinctively tightened his jaw to keep his chin from quivering. There was no time for weakness now. Not when both Steven and Blair needed him so much.

It was time. Sighing heavily, Jim stuffed his wet clothes in the old gym bag he kept in the truck with the change of clothes. Steeling himself inwardly, Jim straightened his broad shoulders and stepped out into the hallway.

He wasn't sure how he felt at that moment. Relieved...yes. Blair would get his chance to survive. But it meant his brother wouldn't be around the next morning.

Steven wouldn't be there ever again.

It was time to say goodbye.

********************

Everything had moved in fast-forward.

Steven had been moved into an operating theatre. Life support would be terminated there, once Jim and William had said their farewells. Once that was done, organs and tissue to be donated would be taken from Steven.

Blair was already in the adjoining O.R. He was not yet sedated, and once Jim left Steven's side, he would be allowed to see Blair. He only hoped the young man would be aware of his presence.

His father had already said his goodbyes. There had been no conscious decision to go in separately. It had just happened that way. Despite the openness of that day, both Ellisons remained at their core very private men.

He looks asleep, Jim marveled. If it weren't for the ventilator and the machines, you'd swear he's just taking a nap. A power nap. Wasn't that the term these days? Nothing could be simple anymore, not even a nap.

Jim rested his hand over his brother's. "I'm so sorry, Steven," he whispered. "Just when we were getting to know each other - for the first time. Damn it all."

Taking a deep breath, Jim smiled sadly. "Our timing was never the greatest, was it? You were always going to track practice, me to football. I left for college, and you were away at camp. You go to the same university just as I'm enlisting. Never enough time..."

Jim's hearing unexpectedly spiked, and the first sound he picked up was the thrumming of the familiar heart in the next operating room. Chief...hang in there. Don't you go...

"Steven, if you can still hear me, I just want to say...I'm glad you were my brother. No matter what Pop threw at us, I was always proud of you. And...thank you for making the decision to be a donor. Do you know you're saving Blair's life? Can you understand what that means to me?"

"You know that I'm a Sentinel, Steven. We never really talked about it, but that means all those things I used to see and hear when we were kids, the things I shouldn't have - they were real. I have enhanced senses, and I use them on the job to help people. Blair is...well, he's part of all that. He's a huge part of that. He's...he's a part of me, Steven, too, and by saving his life, you're saving mine, too. Thank you for that. I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost him."

Squeezing his brother's hand, Jim clenched his jaw against the trembling that threatened to rob him of his control. "Go in peace, my brother."

A moment later, the Sentinel was at the side of his Guide.

********************

Weakly, lids fluttered open and confused blue eyes searched the Sentinel's face. "J...Jim...?" Blair's voice was hoarse, strained from the days of having the respirator breathing for him.

Jim smiled and leaned down close to his Guide. Time was short, and he knew full well it might be their last few moments together. While the surgery was Blair's last hope, it was also risky. "Hey, Chief. About time you joined the party."

Blair looked around, taking in the lights of the operating theatre. "Wha...?"

"Shhhh...save your strength," Jim counseled. He rested one arm on the narrow table on which Blair lay and let his fingers find the soft curls, not yet contained within a surgical cap. "We have a...donor heart. You're in the O.R., waiting for the docs to begin the transplant."

Hope and fear flickered simultaneously in the blue pools. "Really? Oh, man...I'm...I'm scared, Jim."

"Hey...hey, it's all right to be scared, kid." Jim's voice was warm, gentle with concern and affection. "Truth be told, I'm scared, too. You may not have heard me when I told you, but Incacha came to me in a vision. He said you're going to be all right. That I still need you to guide me, that your work isn't finished yet. Incacha's never steered us wrong yet, has he? You're going to be fine. Believe that."

He stared hard into the familiar eyes, searching for a way to say all the things he'd never been able to tell Blair in words. "Chief, I..." His voice failing him, Jim just shook his head, his eyes swimming with unshed tears.

It was the Guide's turn to lend comfort. Blair moved his hand to cup the back of Jim's head then gently guided it to his own chest. The Sentinel didn't resist. A moment later, Blair whispered, "Listen..."

At the sound of the beloved beat, Jim's own heart broke. Will it ever be the same? I could find him in a crowd of thousands, by his heartbeat alone. How will I know him now? Will I even recognize my own Guide, the other half of my own soul? Then, Sandburg's soft whisper saved him from his own doubts.

"It's me, Jim. It'll always be me, no matter what. You will know me, Sentinel, regardless of what heart is beating within, for I am your Guide. I am yours, Jim. I promise that. Yesterday, today, and forever, I am yours."

Those few words had exhausted the young man, and Blair's hand slipped from Jim's head to his shoulder, lying there weakly. But it had been enough. His head still resting on Blair's chest, the cherished beat still thrumming within his very body and soul, Jim nodded. Then, hearing footsteps approach, he straightened up and looked down at Blair. "I'll be waiting."

And Sandburg smiled. "I know."

Bending down again, Jim brushed Blair's cheek first with his fingertips then lightly with his lips. He inhaled deeply and heard Blair's soft chuckle. Sandburg knew, but Jim felt no embarrassment. He was just being a Sentinel. He was imprinting his Guide - the sound of his heart...his scent...his touch...the taste of his skin.

He could not bear the thought that he might be saying good-bye.

"It's time..." The voice was strange, and instinctively, Jim felt the urge to resist being separated from his Guide.

Standing up, he nodded. "I've gotta go, Chief."

Blair shook his head. "Jim...?"

Leaning close again, Ellison asked, "What do you need, buddy?"

His voice was so weak, the words were little more than a breath upon Jim's face. "Don't listen, okay? Promise me. Don't you dare...listen when..."

The impact of Blair's request struck Jim like a blow. Not to listen when that beloved heart was stilled forever? He stood mutely, unable to respond.

"Listen to me. It's not me, okay? I'll still...be here. I don't...want you...to hear it. Promise..."

When it came down to it, he'd never had the strength to deny Sandburg. Not when it really counted.

Nodding, Jim murmured, "I promise, Blair. I promise..."

They were surrounded by a sea of green scrubs, and Jim was whisked from the O.R. to begin an eternity of waiting.

********************

"Did you tell him?"

Jim knew immediately what his father was asking. Had he told Blair that Steven was his donor? Simon looked up from his newspaper.

Jim rubbed his tired eyes. "No. I will eventually. When he's stronger. But not yet."

Simon put in, "Blair is a very emotional person, Mr. Ellison. Telling him now would be very difficult on him. Jim was right to wait."

William nodded, then returned to staring out the window.

"Pop, why don't you go home? There's nothing you can do here, and there are...arrangements..."

For a long time, William didn't answer. Finally, he stood. "You're right. Sally must be told, and there are people to notify."

"I could come along..."

"No. Your place is here. There's nothing we can do for Stevie now, but you need to be here for your friend."

His father looked tired, Jim thought. He looks old. He needs to go home. There's nothing more for him to do here. Simon must have read his mind.

"I'll drive you, Mr. Ellison. Jim, call me if there's any news..."

Jim got up as his father passed by, then William stopped and turned to Jim. "I hope this works, Jimmy. Really, I do. Something good should come of all this heartache."

Jim lifted his hands, but his father had already turned away to leave.

"I'll take care of him," Simon assured Jim softly. "Does your father have any friends or family who could stay with him? Anyone who should know?"

It was sad. He couldn't come up with a single name. Business associates, sure, but friends? Friends like Simon or Joel? Rafe or Henri? Blair was in another category entirely.

"No," Jim said at last. "Sally will be there, though. That should be all right. I'd rather you come back here. Blair would want you to be here."

"I want to be here." Simon picked up his coat. "Let me get him settled, then I'll be back. You call if anything happens..."

Jim stood at the window and watched as his father and Simon trudged slowly through the misty rain. It was evening, and the night was dreary. Streetlamps lent a vaguely yellow glow to the mist. The weather definitely matched his mood.

The heart surgeon who would lead the transplant team, Dr. Stewart Thomaston, had estimated the surgery would take seven hours or more. Jim glanced at his watch. Assuming they had begun by now, it would be at least three in the morning before it would be over.

********************

It took every shred of will Jim possessed to keep his promise to Blair. As much as he wanted to know everything that was going on in the operating theatre, Jim stoically kept his sense of hearing dialed down to almost normal. He knew Blair was right. The silencing of his Guide's heart was not something any Sentinel should hear.

Time played tricks on Jim throughout the endless night. Some hours crept by like the sloths he'd loved to watch back in the Peruvian rainforest, so slow as to be almost unmoving. At those times, Jim would check the clock, certain at least an hour had passed, only to find a scant few minutes had elapsed since his last time check. Then again, he'd catch himself dozing from pure exhaustion and startle awake, sure he'd only catnapped. Yet the clock would reveal he'd slept an hour or more.

Sometimes he feared for his own sanity.

The presence of others intruded in the periphery of his awareness. Simon mostly, but at other times Rafe, Taggart, and Henri drifted in and out of the small ICU waiting area. They murmured words of encouragement, offered coffee or donuts or sandwiches, sat for a time, then wandered away. In the back of his mind, Jim knew he should care. But he just couldn't summon the will. It took every ounce of discipline to keep from zoning on the memories that assaulted him from every direction. Lowering his head into his hands, he let his mind wander into the past, surrendering to the memories.

Memories of Steven...

There had been a time, before their father turned their relationship into one of competition, when they had been close. Snippets of memory, like bits of an old familiar song, flowed through Jim's mind.

Two boys bicycling down a quiet street as springtime blossoms drifted like snowflakes onto their shoulders...birthday parties with cake, ice cream, and presents and their mother's face, smiling and laughing, as she encouraged her son to blow out the candles...fishing at the lake at their grandfather's cabin with the morning sun glistening on the water.

Then their mother's face disappeared, the days grew darker, and the laughter faded. Jim didn't allow himself the memories of those latter days with his brother.

Memories of Blair...

Wide, awestruck blue eyes gazing at him as the 'professor' spun tales of Sentinels and tribes...anger flashing from those same eyes as Sandburg relentlessly pushed him to be everything Blair seemed so damned certain he already was...running in pursuit of some criminal, scared to death, but determined to make Jim proud...his unrestrained laughter and unbridled enthusiasm... standing together in a rushing river - 'my little guppy'...

A silent moan caught in Jim's throat. His head jerked up in self-conscious fear that someone had heard. No one else was there. Jim breathed deeply in relief.

The clock showed nearly four A.M. Jim's heart quickened but whether from fear or relief he could not be certain. The wait must almost be over. There had been no bad news, so surely things were going well.

Please, God...

And then Dr. Thomaston stood in the doorway. The man looked exhausted, and he leaned against the doorframe. Jim rose, almost stumbling, to his feet.

"Detective Ellison, I have good news..."

Tilting his head back, Jim shut his eyes tightly. "Thank you," he breathed. "Thank you..."

********************

Waking after any major medical crisis had always been difficult for Sandburg, Jim mused. The kid did love his sleep. Jim smiled a little behind the medical mask he wore for Blair's protection, reaching out to tuck the covers closer under his Guide's chin.

Already, Blair was on IV immunosuppressants. Jim had become an expert on these drugs, given to suppress the immune system so that the new heart would not be damaged. Because rejection could occur anytime after a transplant, Blair would be taking immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of his life.

However, too much immunosuppression could lead to serious infections. Without a normally active immune system, Blair could easily develop severe infections, so additional medications were also prescribed to fight possible infections

It didn't end there. Dr. Thomaston had already explained that heart transplant recipients are carefully monitored for signs of rejection. He would take samples of small pieces of the transplanted heart to inspect under a microscope.

This biopsy procedure involved advancing a thin tube catheter through a vein to the heart. At the end of the catheter would be a bioptome, a tiny instrument used to snip off a piece of tissue. If the biopsy showed damaged cells, the dose and kind of immunosuppressive drug might be changed. Dr. Thomaston wanted to take biopsies of the heart muscle on Blair weekly for the first three to six weeks after surgery, then every three months for the first year, and then yearly thereafter.

That wasn't all.

Exercise would be a major part of Blair's life, but he would have to be careful to avoid overexertion. Jim was amused at the thought of his friend following a regular fitness routine. Blair wouldn't be able to head straight to the gym, though. Because the nerves leading to the heart are cut during the operation, the transplanted heart beats faster than the normal heart rate of about 70 beats per minute, Blair would have his exercise program prescribed and monitored by a cardiac exercise specialist.

One thing the kid had going for him, Jim mused, was his healthy eating regime. Thomaston had mentioned a low-fat, low sodium diet to decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and fluid retention. Blair had that part nailed already.

Even with the thought of the medicines, biopsies, and lifestyle changes to come, Jim felt nothing but sheer relief. Blair was alive, and so far, his new heart was beating strongly.

It was a small price to pay.

The beeping of the heart monitor intruded on Jim's thoughts. He stared at the bright green pulsing light. His brother's heart now beat inside his Guide. It still didn't seem real to Jim. His father had called earlier in the day, letting him know the plans for Steven's funeral. The body was being cremated, and the memorial service would be held after Blair was stable enough for Jim to leave the hospital for several hours. Jim had felt a surge of gratitude at his father's thoughtfulness. William brushed aside Jim's thanks, quickly asking who Jim thought they should ask to give the eulogy.

As he watched the read-out of his Guide's heartbeat, the Sentinel refused to entertain the thought of turning up his hearing past the normal range. Ever since Sandburg had come into his life, Jim had used the familiar thrumming of Blair's heart as his anchor, his life-line. Regardless of Blair's earlier encouraging words, the question haunted Jim. How would his Guide's heart sound now? Would he listen to that heartbeat and not recognize it? If that happens, Jim resolved firmly, I'll never let him know. Sandburg says I'm the master of concealing my emotions. Surely I can handle this deception as well.

A small sound brought his attention to the pale face lying so still on the pillow. Blair's eyelids flickered once...then again.

"Chief?" Jim said softly, leaning down slightly. "Can you hear me?"

Behind the matted lashes, dark blue eyes slowly appeared. Blair's lips parted, but no sound came out.

Reaching for the cup of ice he'd kept ready ever since Blair was brought to his room, Jim slipped a small piece between the dry lips. "Try that, buddy. Take it slowly. There's no hurry."

Jim knew he should ring for the attending R.N., but he held back. Surely a minute or two alone with his Guide wouldn't hurt. "You're doing great, Blair." Jim's voice was gentle and warm. "The surgery went fine, and Dr. Thomaston is really optimistic."

Blair's head bobbed slightly in an understanding nod. "Chest...hurts..."

Immediately, Jim pushed the button for the nurse. "Yeah, I bet," he agreed sympathetically. "They've got you hooked up to the pain pump, but a nurse has to turn it on for you. That'll help take the edge off and let you sleep. Incacha was right. You're doing really well."

"You...okay?" Concern radiated from the tired, pain-filled eyes of his Guide, and Jim's smile was genuine.

"I'm fine. You're the one with a new heart, Chief." Jim brushed a stray curl away from Blair's face.

A look of puzzlement crossed over Blair's face. "I...wonder...who the donor was." The wondering expression changed to one of deep sadness. "Someone had to...die...for me to live. So sorry...I wish I knew who it was...like to thank him...or her."

Despite the pain gripping his heart, Jim forced his expression to remain neutral. "It's going to be slow, kid. Just hang in there, okay?" Not a real answer, but Blair didn't appear to notice.

The nurse arrived, and Jim moved aside. He'd have to reveal the identity of the donor in time, but not yet. Not until Blair had regained some strength. Not now, while all their wounds were so fresh.

********************

Jim began to mark his life by the days since the heart transplant operation. By the third day after surgery, Blair was stabilized enough for Jim to give his father the go-ahead for his brother's memorial service. It was soon scheduled for the fifth day after Blair had received Steven's heart.

The church was almost filled with mourners by the time the family entered through a side vestibule door. Jim kept his eyes averted, certain he wouldn't recognize many, if any, of Steven's business associates and friends.

We've lived such different lives, Steven. I know nothing of your life, and if this service had been for me, you'd know very few of those here for me. It's a shame how little we knew each other..

Jim settled next to his father. The older man had been completely self-contained the entire morning. He'd asked about Blair's health with what appeared to be genuine concern.

Once Jim had let his father know that Blair was progressing well, he asked, "You can come see him, you know. I'm sure he'd be happy to have you visit."

William's gray head shook once. "No. I'm not quite ready for that yet. It's good that he's doing well, though."

"He helped other people, too, Pop. He did a good thing."

William brushed at his eyes, then straightened his shoulders in a gesture of self control. "Yes. Steven was always a kind boy."

That had been the extent of their conversation about anything of substance. William didn't move throughout the service, keeping his eyes trained on the photo of his son at the front of the church.

Several of Steven's colleagues spoke, remembering him as a hard-worker and good friend. Jim listened, but he worked hard at not letting the words pierce too deeply. He needed his control now, more than ever. He owed it to Steven.

The minister nodded at Jim as the last speaker resumed his seat. Jim caught the look of surprise on his father's face as he slipped from the pew and moved to the front of the church.

He looked at the enlarged photo of Steven that stood beside the table holding his brother's ashes. The image had obviously been made at a party of some sort. Steven looked relaxed, a huge Ellison grin splitting his face. Jim studied his brother's face, so familiar, yet so much a stranger to him. Then he faced the assembled mourners.

"I'm Jim Ellison, Steven's brother. Most of you don't know me, but..."

As he scanned the congregation, Jim suddenly stopped, losing his train of thought completely. There, on the sixth row back, was a line of familiar faces.

Simon...Rafe...Henri...Joel...Daryl

They were all there - the Major Crimes officers and more. The receptionist from the main lobby...a couple of instructors from the Academy...even some of Blair's coworkers and friends from Rainier. It touched Jim to see that Eli was there. The older man was pale with dark circles beneath his eyes as if he hadn't slept.

Jim swallowed hard against the tightness constricting his throat. His voice rasped on the first few words then evened out. "Thank you all for coming." He made firm eye contact with each person on the row. "I appreciate it so very much."

"I don't know most of you who worked with or were friends with my brother. As adults, we lived very separate lives. But I know the man my brother was. I remember his laughter...his competitive spirit...his determination. The presence of you here today, in such great numbers, tells me that he was a good friend, a loyal employee, and a respected man."

Jim took a sip of water from the glass the minister handed him. The tightness eased even more, and he nodded gratefully. "But one simple act of Steven's tells me everything I need to know about the man my brother was, and it should stand as a lesson in generosity and selflessness to us all. It only took a few seconds, yet it is an act that has implications that will endure for all time."

Jim studied the glass of water in his hand. "Like the ripple a stone makes in a smooth lake, ever-expanding, spreading out wider and wider, Steven's simple act will echo for generations to come."

"What did my brother do that could be so significant?" Jim paused, setting the water down on the pulpit. His eyes moved slowly over the crowd. "He signed his name."

His words rang in the church. "He signed a donor card. Steven didn't want to die. He didn't expect to leave us all so soon. But he had the vision, the presence of mind, to know that life catches us unaware far too often. He decided when he died, he wanted to give one final gift, one lasting gift, to help others. It was the final imprint that he could leave on this earth, and I'm here to tell you that it was a monumental one."

Jim reached into his pocket and unfolded a small sheet of paper. "Because of my brother, Steven Ellison, two people no longer need to endure dialysis. One of his lungs is helping a mother of two breathe, and the other is going to help a high school boy live to graduate and go to college. A fourteen year old girl can see for the first time in years because she has one of Steven's corneas. The other went to a young mother who was able to see her child's face for the first time. Some of his connective tissues are being used to repair damage to arms and legs caused by automobile wrecks or other injuries. His bone marrow may help someone survive leukemia."

He drew a long, shaky breath. "And his heart..." Slowly, Jim folded the paper and carefully placed it back in his shirt pocket. He took another sip of water, then Jim raised his eyes to find his father's face. "Steven's heart has saved the life of my best friend." He turned to look at the photograph. "For that, my brother, I will be eternally grateful."

The silence in the sanctuary was broken by subdued sniffles and a few choked sobs. Jim stared at Steven's smiling face for a long moment, then he turned back to the crowd.

"When you remember Steven Ellison, don't remember this sad day. Remember that photograph. Remember his laughter and sense of humor. Remember how he lived his life and learn by his example. If you haven't already, sign a donor card. Let your family know how important this is. Do it for yourself. Do it for all those you can help."

Jim paused and looked from face to face to face. "Do it for Steven."

********************

Each day brought small signs of improvement. Almost minute by minute, Blair grew stronger, the color returning to his face and his eyes regaining their brightness. His words flowed more easily as his lungs no longer strained for air, and his mind grew sharper as his body recovered. There were side effects from the anti-rejection drugs, to be sure, but they paled in significance next to the memory of the weak, fading shadow Blair had been only weeks before.

His clips, used instead of stitches, had been removed after seven days. He had regular visits from the staff dietician and physical therapists, along with lengthy discussions with specialists about the medicines he was taking and the important signs of rejection he must watch out for every day. Jim returned to work, although Simon was insistent that his day end at a reasonable hour so he could spend time with Blair. The preliminary biopsies of his new heart were encouraging. They'd received the good news late that afternoon: Blair would be going home in the morning, ten days after his surgery.

Evening shadows were cast by the full moon, lending its silvery voice to the swaying trees whispering outside his hospital window. Blair could just see the tops of the oaks from his bed. He'd taken several walks during the course of the day, but he felt sure Jim would insist on just one more short stroll down the hall before he left for the loft. It relieved Jim's mind, Blair thought, to see him up and walking. No wonder, after the close calls of the past few months.

"Hey, man," he said quietly. "Feel like a little walk?"

Jim looked up from the paper he'd been reading. Immediately, he folded it neatly, setting it on the table by his chair. "Sure," he replied, standing up and stretching. "How about heading down to the vending machine? I could go for a pack of chips."

"Don't you know that stuff's bad for your cholesterol, Jim?" Blair teased. "Trust me, you so do not want to have heart problems. It's not easy to come by a replacement, y'know. They're in short supply."

A wounded look flashed across the Sentinel's chiseled features. Silently, he came over to the bed, raised the head, and slipped his hands behind Blair's shoulders, supporting him as the younger man turned to sit on the edge of the bed. Puzzled, Blair studied his face for a moment. Maybe the joke was in slightly poor taste, considering the worry he must have put Jim through recently, but that didn't go far enough to explain the sheer pain he'd seen in his friend's eyes.

"I'm sorry, man. Bad joke, given the circumstances."

Still without a word, Jim helped him to his feet. The IV was gone, and that made it much easier to slip into his own warm robe that Jim had brought from the loft. Before they headed to the door, Blair caught Jim's arm. "Hey, you okay? I didn't mean anything by..."

Jim's smile seemed forced. "I'm fine, Chief. I'm just not ready to joke about all this yet, okay? On second thought, I think I'll pass on those chips and get some fruit juice instead."

Blair started slowly toward the door, the pressure of Jim's hand on his elbow a tangible reminder that his Sentinel was there to assist if he felt dizzy or weak. Jim's little joke was obviously meant to reassure, but there was a definite current of something much more serious beneath the lighthearted words. Blair's curiosity was awakened.

I'll figure it out, man. Whatever's bugging you, I'll find out. Maybe not tonight, but soon.

********************

They moved slowly down the hallway. Blair glanced up at Jim from time to time, and the Sentinel could read the question in the blue eyes.

"Hey, Jim?"

Jim looked down at his friend. "Yeah, Chief? You getting tired already?"

Blair laughed. "We've only gone halfway down the hall, man. If that much walking wore me out, there's no way I'd be going home in the morning."

"Guess not. Let me know if you want to rest though."

"I will. I'm fine. I was just wondering..."

The concern in Blair's voice was impossible to miss. Jim stopped walking and faced his friend. "Wondering what, Chief?"

Blair held his gaze for a long moment, then he looked down, apparently studying the pattern of Jim's sweater. "Dr. Thomaston says I can pretty much resume normal activities after about six weeks, and that's great, but..." The words trailed off.

Jim tilted his head. What was bothering Blair? "But...?"

The younger man sighed heavily. "He said I should avoid highly strenuous activity, and sometimes...well, sometimes your job, and my job, too, if you think about it...well, my job as your Guide anyway...it gets pretty strenuous out there, Jim."

Blair looked up at him again, and there was blatant fear in the blue depths. "What if the department decides it doesn't need a consultant on the pay roll with some really major health risks? I mean, I'll still have my position at Rainier, but you know my main job is your Guide, and if I can't work at the department, then...then maybe it'll be all over, the part about my being your partner and all. What if...?"

Jim stopped the flow of words with gentle fingers touching Blair's lips. "Stop it. Don't worry about that, okay? I've already talked with Simon about it. We'll have to make some adjustments in our partnership, but it's not insurmountable. If I take off on foot after some bad guy, you'll have to call for back-up and not go tearing after me. We'll have to be extra careful - think before we act sometimes. Be more aware of what we might be getting into."

Jim grinned. "I'll even cooperate on more tests if it'll make you more comfortable about not being able to always follow where I need to go. It may not be what we had before, but we can make it work."

The grin faded, and Jim looked hard down into Sandburg's eyes. "This ain't over, kid. Not by a long shot."

Slowly, the blue eyes grew moist as the fear subsided. "Thanks, Jim," Blair said softly. "So much has happened. So much has changed. I just needed to know that I haven't lost that, too."

"You are still my Guide, Chief. That's not changing. Not now or ever. Got it?" When Blair nodded silently, Ellison smiled. "Good. Then let's go find that vending machine, Sandburg," he said, breaking their serious mood. "I'm feeling lucky tonight. I may want to gamble on those chips after all."

********************

Homecoming day was appropriately sunny and warm. Not a cloud in the sky, no minor accomplishment for Cascade. It seemed the whole city was welcoming its appointed shaman home with open arms.

The drive home was accompanied by Blair's choice of music on the truck radio. "Don't get too used to it, Chief," Jim cautioned. "This is a one-time offer."

Blair's fingers tapped on the door as he drank in the sights out his window. "Oh, man. Good music, a gorgeous day, and I'm actually outside! This is way too good to be true!"

Jim chuckled at his partner's enthusiasm. It was wonderful to hear Sandburg sounding like his old self again. "Glad it isn't raining, Chief. You've spent time enough indoors. If you're up to it, we'll sit outside for a while when we get home. Maybe go down to the park tomorrow."

Blair regarded him cautiously. "You've gotta go back to work sometime, man. I know you've missed way too many days...make that weeks...already."

He was right. Simon had already dropped a couple of not-so-subtle hints about being short-handed. The other guys in Major Crimes had covered for him long enough. But one more afternoon? What could it hurt? Tomorrow he could head for the station. For today, he had a returning Guide to care for.

Blair chattered on. "Besides, I'm ready to get back, too, y'know? I mean, I can be as lazy as the next guy, despite what some people say about my being hyper and all. But lying around on the couch all day on Sunday is one thing. Weeks in bed - now that's entirely different. I'm surprised my muscles haven't atrophied." His brows knitted together. "I wonder how long that actually takes? Maybe..."

Jim shook his head, grinning broadly, and the torrent of words trickled to nothing. Blair stared at him, eyes wide. "What?"

"I know one thing, Chief," Ellison drawled. "Your lung capacity's back to normal." He feigned actual pain in his voice with the 'ouch' that followed Blair's punch to his bicep as their shared laughter filled the truck.

Life was beginning to return to a semblance of normal.

********************

"Surprise!"

"Welcome home, Hairboy!"

The loft had been transformed by colorful streamers, floating balloons, and a huge banner that stretched over the loft's windows to declare "WELCOME HOME, BLAIR!"

Mixed in among the tables of food, balloons, and arrangements of flowers were their friends. Colleagues of Blair's from Rainier, co-workers from the station, and neighbors at the loft - all had congregated at the loft to welcome Blair Sandburg home.

"Oh, man!" Blair's beaming face rivaled the brilliance of the sunshine pouring in through the loft's broad expanse of glass. "This is too much!"

Simon stepped forward with a box wrapped in bright yellow and red paper with a tremendous bow on the top. "Welcome home, Sandburg. Before you start mingling and munching on these goodies, everyone at Major Crimes went in together and..."

Never one for public displays, Banks hesitated, then held the box out for Blair. "Here - open it and you'll see."

Jim took Blair's elbow, guiding him to the couch. "Sit. You still don't have your strength back completely."

Blair's grin was crooked, and the appreciation in his eyes betrayed his words. "My roommate, partner, and personal nurse, everyone - James Ellison."

Laughter rippled about the room, but Jim shrugged it off. "Whatever it takes, Chief. Whatever it takes."

Blair caught the implication. To keep you healthy... He dutifully perched on the edge of the couch.

The Major Crimes unit gathered around as other guests made their way to the trays of snack foods scattered about. Blair began to unwrap the bright paper.

"Hope you like it, Hairboy," Henri put it.

"Of course he'll like it," Rafe said. "It was my idea, wasn't it?"

"It's not like he can return it," Joel muttered darkly.

Easing back the box lid, Blair peered inside. "I'm sure I'll like it, guys. I mean..." He stopped, eyes growing wide. "Oh, man! This is unbelievable!"

Drawing out a single piece of paper, Blair stood up, facing the rest of their guests. "Hey! Listen up!"

The small crowd drew closer, their chatter fading as they turned their attention to the young man they'd all come to honor.

"This is from the Major Crimes unit - Jim's team at Cascade P.D." He looked from familiar face to familiar face. Only a few short years ago, they'd all been strangers, living in diametrically opposed worlds, and today - just look at what they'd done.

For him...

Blair took a deep breath, treasuring the fullness of his own lungs. He read from the sheet of parchment-like paper.

Declaration...
In that Blair Sandburg has become an integral part of the Major Crimes unit,
Proving himself a valuable member of said unit by
Demonstrating courage, inventiveness, and astuteness in solving crimes...

Blair's voice faltered as he swiped the back of his hand over his eyes then turned to Jim with a pleading look.

Ellison stepped forward without hesitation, taking the parchment from his hand. "Let me, Chief." Blair stayed at his side, his eyes following the words as Jim's strong voice continued:

And earning the right to remain as partner to Detective James Joseph Ellison.
In that he has demonstrated great courage and dignity in the face of Extreme adversity, and thereby earned our collective respect and admiration,
We, the undersigned, do declare that we have all signed organ donor cards,
Making official our desire to honor him with our pledge."

Jim swallowed hard before adding, "It's signed by every member of Major Crimes, from Captain Banks to every detective, secretary, and administrative assistant."

"You've already done your part, Jim," Joel added softly, "but you can add your name to the list later, if you'd like. We wanted to keep this a surprise from Blair."

"It was," Blair murmured. "Thanks so much. Nothing you could have done would have meant this much..."

The next few moments were lost in quick hugs, slaps on the back, and the brushing away of more than a few tears.

Later, Jim eased himself away from the crowd to stand near the balcony doors. Parties had never been his favorite activity, even before his senses gained their full potency. Too many people. Too much conversation. He preferred smaller, more intimate gatherings, but this was Blair's night. He just felt the need for a little breathing room.

The glass behind his back and the slightly cooler air that surrounded it provided some respite. Blair was on the couch, a few of his Rainier friends clustered around, regaling them with tales of an adventure in Mexico. Jim smiled, watching the animation in his friend's face and gestures.

He really did seem okay.

"He looks good."

Ellison glanced at Simon and nodded. "Yeah. He does."

"When's he coming back to the station? For that matter, when are you coming back?"

Jim took a long swallow of his beer. "Tomorrow for me. A few more weeks for Blair. I talked to Blair about it on the way home. He wants to get his life back on track. I think he should take a little more time than that, but damn it, after all he's been through..." Jim shrugged. "I can't tell him no. I'll be lucky to keep him away from the station and the university that long."

Simon cut his eyes at Jim, uncertainty clouding their dark depths. "I know we talked about Blair coming back, and I'll give you as light a case load as I can for a while, Jim, but I have to know that he's able to handle being with you on the streets. I have to know that he's okay physically. And I need to know that he won't be jeopardizing his health by taking unnecessary risks out there."

The beer slid down his throat, welcomingly cold. "The doctors say he has to avoid extremes, Simon. He can resume 'normal' activities, whatever the hell that means, in about six more weeks. I'll talk to him before that. Hell, I'll lecture, yell, dictate – whatever it takes. We'll have to make adjustments. No more chasing after the bad guys with me. No more taking risks like he was a cat with seven spare lives. I'll make sure Sandburg gets it, Captain. Or I'll fill out the reassignment papers for him myself."

Banks leaned back against the glass doors and lowered his voice. "Have you told him...the rest?"

"Not yet." Jim watched Blair, laughing with his friends, and his heart clinched. "I wanted to bring him home first. Maybe give him a few days to enjoy being back in the world."

"That's dangerous," Simon whispered sharply. "What if someone says something? I passed the word tonight before you arrived, but at the station..."

"I know. I know." Suddenly the beer tasted too warm, too bland. "This isn't something you just blurt out, y'know? I've got to find the right time, the right way..."

"I know it must be tough, Jim, but just don't wait too long. That would just make it harder on Blair – and on you." Banks tilted the base of his bottle toward the small crowd gathered around Blair. "He deserves to know the truth, and he deserves to hear it from you. Remember that, Jim, and do it soon."

The truth of the words was undeniable. Staring at his Guide, still unable to listen to the sound of the heart now beating within his chest, Jim nodded. "Yeah, you're right. I know I have to tell him. I know."

The party lingered on into the night, but Jim's celebratory mood had turned to one of quiet introspection. For the remainder of the evening, the Sentinel stood alone.

********************

Halfway through his recuperation, Blair's mother called. It took all Jim's will not to listen to the sometimes heated conversation going on in the living room while he was preparing dinner. He couldn't help hearing Blair's side at times. Anyone with halfway normal hearing would bear witness to the young man's frustration with his mothers.

"No, Naomi, I'm doing fine. There's no reason for you to cancel your plans with the Parkers and come to Cascade. You were planning to come here for the holidays, and that's fine."

Silence...He could hear Blair tapping the table with a pen, and Jim grinned. Apparently even Naomi's son had difficulty remaining patient with her at times.

"I'm still sore. I see the doctors every week, but all the tests are very good."

More tapping...

"No, not yet. I have a couple more weeks. I'm cutting back my schedule, I promise. Jim understands. We've talked about everything, Mom. Don't worry."

Tap...tap...tap...

"I'd love to try the herbs, Mom, but I'll have to get my doctor's approval. No, I'm not taking anything he doesn't approve. I can't. I know it's all natural, but even natural herbs have effects on your body. That's why they work, right? Just send them on and if it's okay, I promise I'll try them."

The tapping stopped.

"Okay, Mom, that sounds good. Enjoy your trip, and try not to worry, okay? I'm fine, and when you come to Cascade in a few months, we'll have a wonderful visit. Call anytime, okay? I love you, too. Bye!"

Jim hummed under his breath as he tossed the salad. He'd been granted a reprieve. Naomi wasn't coming to Cascade.

********************

For six weeks, Jim went to the station alone. Blair's check-ups were good, and his doctors were pleased with his progress. He kept busy reading professional articles, even writing up some of the observations he'd made during his abbreviated experience with Eli in Africa. Jim rented movies for him every week, and he drove Blair to the library at least twice weekly. Still, by the time his six week recovery period was up, Blair was more than ready to return to Major Crimes and Rainier.

Their arrival at the station was relatively uneventful. Everyone greeted Blair warmly, but for the most part, Major Crimes went about its business as on any other day. For that, Blair was grateful.

Jim spent the first part of Blair's first morning back going over case files, sharing with Blair the particulars of the cases for which they'd be responsible. It struck the younger man early on that none of Jim's cases were what might be classified as 'high risk'. Important, yes. Dangerous, probably not.

He debated discussing his observation with his friend. Jim seemed glad to be back at the station. Blair had learned long ago to read Jim's mood via his body language. Today, the detective was reared back in his chair reading aloud from a case file with a cooling cup of coffee and half-eaten Danish on his desk, and, most importantly of all, there wasn't a trace of tension in the chiseled features. For Jim, this qualified as 'laid back' in the extreme.

So Blair opted to go along with the obvious plan to ease them – him – back into life in the Major Crimes unit. He couldn't blame Simon really.

Blair casually leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms so that his right hand was over his heart. His new heart. It still seemed so strange, when he allowed himself to think about it. Someone else's heart was beating inside his body, keeping him alive. Jim's kidney was doing the same. It was almost too much to take in. And if it was still mind-numbing to him, imagine how tough it must be for Simon to even consider letting him back on the streets with Jim. They were all treading on newly-discovered territory here. Better to take it slow, give it all time to work itself out. Allow still wounded hearts, new and otherwise, time to heal.

"Hey, Chief," Jim softly called, "you okay?"

Releasing his arms, Blair grinned. "Fine, man. Never better. Listen, you got any ideas about..." The listening expression on Jim's face stopped him.

"Simon wants us in his office."

A second later came the official call. "Ellison! In here now!"

Blair couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled up from deep within. "Oh, man, some things never change!"

********************

"We need some ground rules here." Simon regarded Ellison and Sandburg from over the broad expanse of his desk.

He expected the bland look from Jim. "Rules, sir?"

Ignoring Jim, Simon gazed at Blair. "Exactly what have the doctors told you, son? About what you can and cannot do?"

To his credit, Blair's gaze neither wavered nor weakened. "I have to watch getting infections or picking up things like the flu. So if something's going around, I'll need to be extra careful. That's one of the side effects of the anti-rejection drugs. Otherwise, I can do almost anything I ever did, Simon, but in moderation. I know I was burning the candle at both ends here and at Rainier. Maybe I need to cut my hours back some..."

A harrumph from Jim confirmed that the Sentinel definitely agreed, but Blair never glanced away.

"I probably shouldn't go on long foot-chases, but short sprints should be okay."

"Not in your job description, Chief," Jim pointed out. "You're a consultant, not a cop, remember?"

"Stop the bull, Jim. We both know that Sandburg's never considered being either an observer or a consultant as his real job here. I don't expect that to be any different now." Simon felt the tension building in his neck. He should have known this wouldn't be easy. Nothing ever was with Jim and Blair.

Sandburg's eyes remained fixed on Simon, and the captain admired the young man's grace under pressure. "You're right. I'm Jim's Guide, first and foremost. Sometimes in the past, I forgot that and let myself get too wrapped up in the cases we were working on. I promise you, Simon, I'll stick to that one role. I won't take unnecessary risks. Not with my life and absolutely never with Jim's."

For a long moment, Simon studied the sincere blue eyes and read the truth there. "All right, son," he said at last, "that's good enough for me." With a slight nod, the agreement was sealed, and he turned his attention to Jim.

"Now, Detective, I need to know if you can do your job with him there." As Jim's eyebrow arched in feigned surprise, Simon cut off the objection before it found voice.

"Don't give me that look, Ellison. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. Can you do what you need to do, take the risks that you have to take, with Sandburg at your side? Do you trust him to take care of himself so you can focus on doing your job? Because if you don't I stand to lose a good detective in the line of duty, and I'm not willing to take that risk."

The arched eyebrow collapsed, and Jim's gaze softened as he looked to Sandburg. Blair looked over at Jim, and their eyes locked.

"I don't know," Jim admitted at last. "That's hard for me, Simon. Chief, do you promise me that you'll do what I say out in the field? I know we joke about the 'wait in the truck' thing, but this time, I'm serious. Deadly serious. Simon's right. I have to know that I can trust you to follow my command. Just as I follow you when it comes to the Sentinel stuff, Chief. I'm not asking anything of you that I'm not willing to give myself."

The younger man didn't hesitate. "I promise, Jim. I know this is serious stuff. You've sacrificed enough for me already, and I don't want anything to jeopardize this second chance I've been handed."

Blair's gaze never faltered. "But I need a promise from you in return. If we're out there, and I see something going screwy with your senses - you know I sometimes can pick up on that before you even have a clue - you've got to promise to listen to me. To do what I tell you about it. Maybe I won't be able to right there at your side all the time, so this becomes even more critical now – this listening to the Guide thing. 'Cause I'm only after your safety, Jim, and you know that, right? When it comes down to the bottom line, I don't care about the cases or about the bad guys or anything else that matters around this place. I care about you. Period. Can you make me that promise?"

Simon knew Jim Ellison well enough to know how much the next three words cost the man.

"I promise, Chief."

No one spoke for a time then Simon cleared his throat. "Then it's settled. Sandburg, you're cleared to go back on the streets with Jim. But if I hear of you putting your health at risk even once, then I will reconsider my decision. Do you understand me? Both of you?" For effect, he gave them both his best captain's stare.

Apparently he was losing his game, because Jim and Blair both grinned simultaneously. "Understood, sir," they replied in tandem.

"Then get the hell out of my office. Some of us have work to do."

Watching their departure, he sent up a silent prayer to whatever deity watched over Sentinels and their Guides, a quick supplication to keep them safe in the dangerous days to come.

********************

The nights were the hardest. That's when the nightmares descended, not all of them when Blair slept. Often they prevented sleep completely, waking dreams which Blair could not control.

There were infinite variations, but only two themes to his dreams.

The first of the dreams centered around the face of his unknown donor. Sometimes he saw a young man with large, sad eyes. In other dreams, it was a father, begging him to return his stolen heart so he could return to his children and their mother. Often it was a bride, dressed in her gown of white, yet covered in blood, crying for her forfeited life and lost love. No matter the identity of the donor, he always woke up in a cold sweat and trembling.

The worst of the drams was the second. It began normally enough. He was with Jim out on the streets. Without warning, Jim was suddenly in danger, and Blair knew that Jim's only hope for survival lay with him.

The Sentinel was far away, down a rain-slick, darkened street, and he was calling for Blair, pleading for him to come and help. Blair started running, his feet barely touching the wet pavement. He ran and ran and ran, yet Jim seemed farther away than ever. Jim's cries echoed in the dark, mocking Blair's ineptness. His steps grew heavier. His heart pounded harder within his chest, and his vision burned red with blood rushing to his head. His heart was failing! He couldn't reach Jim, and the dismal thought of that failure was his last.

The first few times he dreamed his dreams, Blair feared he'd cried aloud in his sleep. But Jim never rushed to his side and never mentioned hearing his distress in the night. This puzzled Blair. Jim had always known when he'd had nightmares – after Lash...and Alex – yet, this time, the Sentinel seemed oblivious. Blair never mentioned the dreams, knowing that Jim would feel terrible that he hadn't known. The Sentinel had been through enough over the past months without adding guilt to the mix.

And so Blair faced his nightly demons alone.

********************

Sandburg's first week back at Major Crimes passed uneventfully. Two cases were wrapped up with unaccustomed ease, and a third was well on its way to closure. By the end of the second week following their return, both Jim and Blair found themselves ready for something more challenging.

It came in the form of a drug bust.

Rafe and Henri were the lead detectives on the case. After months of work, they'd traced a new, often lethal, form of crystal meth to a basement lab in an abandoned apartment building. Careful planning had led to a planned Friday night bust.

Jim's assignment was to assist Rafe, Henri, and the uniformed officers they'd recruited for back-up. It was a damp, chilly night, and huddled there in Jim's truck, Blair's greatest hope was that they could all go home soon, safe and sound.

He monitored what was happening via police radio and the binoculars he kept trained on the old building. It wasn't the best of arrangements, and Blair battled the feelings of isolation and uselessness. He should be in there with Jim, helping him, but here he sat. At odds with those emotions was the undeniable understanding that this time, he had no choice. All those years of Jim's telling him to 'wait in the truck' were nothing compared to its necessity now. A Guide on the sidelines might not be very useful, but a dead Guide was of absolutely no use to his Sentinel. So Blair waited, watching and listening, not at all sure of his new role in Jim's life.

The crackle of the radio reminded him of listening to tapes of the old serial radio shows with Naomi when he was a kid. Hearing the action and trying to visualize what was actually going down wasn't the greatest, but as long as he heard Jim's voice, he knew the Sentinel was okay.

"We're heading down the interior stairs..."

"Jim, you're almost in position?"

"I'm at the back exit. Give the count when you're ready."

"One...two...three...MOVE!"

What followed next was dead silence. Blair had expected radio silence once the raid was actually on, but the empty airwaves unnerved him. He cracked a window, ignoring the chilled air that rushed into the truck. No gunshots. That was a positive sign.

Blair trained the binoculars back on the building. He could see through the dirty old windows of the upper floors, but of course, the basement wasn't in view. At last, the crackle of the radio resumed.

"I've got three!"

"Back hall's cleared!"

"Jim, what's going on?"

"I've got one down in cuffs. Going after a second guy now. We're heading up the side stairwell."

He could hear the thunder of running footsteps behind Jim's tense voice. Blair trained his binoculars on the building, searching for a glimpse of Jim, but he couldn't see anything helpful.

"C'mon, man," Blair muttered. "Talk to us. Give me a clue here."

Nothing.

Frustrated, Blair slipped out of the truck. He'd just move a bit closer. He wasn't going inside. He'd promised Jim and Simon he'd be careful. But he'd also promised that Jim's safety was his first concern. What harm could be done by moving a little closer to the action?

Blair moved cautiously across the parking lot. The night was quiet, the damp streets shining in the dull light of the streetlamps. An old neon sign hissed above a small café. Its green and orange light cast an unearthly glow on Blair's face as he watched anxiously.

Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of movement through a broken window. It definitely wasn't Jim. Too short and not nearly graceful enough for the Sentinel.

The shadow moved toward the right side of the old building. Blair could see the door that led into the alley separating the apartment building from its neighbor to the right. If the drug dealer made that door, he'd be into the alley, then the street, and on his way to freedom.

Or if he slipped into the alley and chose to lie in wait for Jim...

That scenario reminded him way too much of his most dreaded nightmare.

Blair sprinted toward the building, hoping that Jim would forgive him for what he was about to do.

********************

Jim froze in the dark hallway, listening. His prey had eluded him thus far. Obviously this guy knew the labyrinth of hallways in this old place better than he. A moment later from one floor below, he heard pounding footsteps and smiled.

It was only a matter of time.

********************

Blair took position in the alley, waiting. Out of habit, he placed his palm against his chest. The new heart – his heart - was pounding a bit fast, but was it any wonder?

He heard the heavy sound of approaching footsteps then the door beside him flew open.

Ignoring the possible consequences of what he was about to do, Blair sprang into action.

********************

Jim heard the startled cry and the familiar shout of his partner. "Blair!"

What the hell had Sandburg gone and done? "Damn it, Chief," he breathed.

He took the steps three at a time, then sprang into the air, vaulting to the floor. A few strides later, he hit the door at full speed and almost fell into the alley. Pulling up short, his gun drawn and ready, Jim's eyes widened in surprise. The man he'd been pursuing lay writhing on the dirty ground, clutching his right knee. Standing above him with a three-foot section of metal pipe was Sandburg, a broad grin splitting his face.

"Hey, man," he greeted Jim. "Look at the one that almost got away!"

Jim whipped out his cuffs, knelt and slapped them on the perp. He could hear their back-up approaching. He stood up, still breathing a bit hard from the pursuit. "I thought I told you to wait in the truck, Chief."

The sheepish look on Blair's face didn't match the pride in his voice. "I did, at least until I spotted this guy about to slip out the side exit. I knew you were right behind him, that all I needed to do was slow him down for a few seconds and you'd be right here. When I spotted that piece of pipe, I knew I could do it, so I did."

"Exactly what did you do, Chief?"

The answer came from the man moaning on the wet pavement. "Little S.O.B. hit me in the knee! He broke my kneecap! I'll sue! I wanna see a lawyer!"

"I really don't think I hit him," Blair defended. "He was running full speed, so I'm sure it hurt when he hit the pipe, but all I did really was trip him up. I think he hit his head, too, when he fell. The medics will want to see about that."

Henri burst into the alleyway, taking control of the situation and calling for the EMTs. Grasping Blair's elbow, Jim guided him to a quieter spot on the sidewalk. "Are you okay?" He studied his friend's face anxiously, searching for any signs of stress or fatigue.

Blair beamed up at him. "I'm great! Don't you get it, Jim? I can still do my job as your Guide, still help you out even if I can't be right in the thick of the action! Each situation will be a little different, but tonight has made me see that it can be done! Isn't it great?"

Jim drew a long, deep breath to steady his nerves. He's okay. He took a risk, but it was a calculated risk. He needs to be normal again, at least as normal as his life can be from this point on. Let him have this victory.

Another long breath stilled what remained of Jim's first inclination to crawl his partner's frame for getting out of the safety zone of the truck in the first place. He rested his hand on Blair's shoulder and squeezed. "It is great, Chief. You did a fine job. Thank you."

Blair's lashes batted quickly in obvious surprise, and Jim chuckled silently. Blair had been expecting a dressing-down, not a pat on the back. Maybe they were both learning to deal effectively with this huge change in their partnership.

Simon's car pulled up, as did the EMTs. Lights flashed, illuminating the darkened streets and alley with brilliant reds and blues.

The rest of the night passed in processing the evidence and booking the perpetrators.

********************

The days that followed were calm in comparison. Sentinel and Guide felt their way through their newly evolving relationship, and by the second weekend after Blair's return to work, Ellison felt certain that they would be able to find ways to continue their partnership despite Blair's new limitations. Sandburg was true to his word, no longer bringing stacks of work home from Rainier, instead using his evenings for reading or watching movies with Jim.

On Friday afternoon, Jim tossed out the suggestion he and Simon had been batting about all week. The sun was streaming through the loft's wide windows, and the forecast for the weekend was promising.

"Hey, Chief?"

Blair looked up from the book he was leafing through. Jim had never been able to understand how Sandburg seemed to get so much out of a book he apparently only skimmed. But there was much about his friend's brilliance Jim was sure he'd never understand.

"Feel like a short camping trip this weekend? Simon has Daryl staying with him for a few days. We thought we might run up this evening to Lost Creek and come home Sunday afternoon. The tent's ready, and we could pick up a few groceries along the way." Seeing the light of anticipation flare in Blair's eyes, he added cautiously, "But only if you're sure you're up to it."

"Up to it? You must be kidding! I've been ready for this since I left the hospital." He bounced up from the couch. "Give me fifteen minutes to throw some stuff in my duffel...well, maybe twenty, 'cause I need to find my tackle box...and I'll be ready to roll."

Jim laughed, reached out and ruffled his friend's hair. "Slow down, Darwin. Simon's gotta wait on Daryl to get home and pack, so they can't be here for another hour or more. You've got time. Just double check to be sure you have all your meds."

Blair's expression turned serious. "You're okay with this, Jim? Our heading away from civilization, I mean? And hospitals?"

The kid's instincts were right on target, as usual. Squirming just a bit, Jim admitted, "Not completely. But you had your check-up yesterday and got an all-clear. You've done a great job the past few days, Chief. You seem like you really feel okay. If you think you're ready, then so am I."

His Guide smiled softly. "I'm ready, man. I feel good, Jim. Really, I mean I do."

Ellison slapped him on the back. "Then go get packed, Sandburg, 'cause there's a string of big trout up there just waiting for me!"

********************

By the next afternoon there was a large collection of trout waiting for their appointments with the frying pan. Most were caught by Jim, and Blair teased Jim mercilessly about his Sentinel senses giving him an unfair advantage.

By five o'clock, a fire was crackling and each camper was doing his part in preparing dinner. It was Daryl's job to peel the potatoes and carrots that would go in the vegetable soup Blair was concocting. Simon and Jim were cleaning the trout. A light breeze stirred the leaves into song, the river rushed over time-worn rocks, and their banter was light. For the first time in what seemed like years, Jim felt completely and utterly relaxed.

"Hey, Jim," Blair commented, mixing some of the herbs he'd brought in his pack into the stewpot. "We should bring your dad and Steven up here sometime. Has your dad ever camped out?"

Jim stiffened, and he caught the look Simon shot him. "No," he replied, deliberately casual, "he hasn't. Not that I know of anyway."

"Daryl, how are those carrots coming?" Simon asked quickly.

The boy threw his father a put-upon look at the interruption. "Fine, Dad. They'll be ready before those fish." Puzzled dark eyes turned to Jim. "But didn't your brother...?"

"Need some more potatoes?" Jim interrupted and saw the righteous indignation only the young possess flare in Daryl's eyes.

"Right!" Simon agreed, too brightly. "We want to make sure that stew is enough for four hungry appetites."

"Look! You don't have to treat me like a kid! If you don't want to talk about Jim's brother, fine! Just say so, but don't keep changing the subject like I'm some five-year-old!" Daryl stared from his father to Jim and back, challenge smoldering in his expression.

A quiet voice interrupted, and they all fell silent. "What's going on, Jim? What about Steven? What's Daryl talking about?" Confused blue eyes locked on his Sentinel's face, and Jim would have preferred to be one of the doomed trout, filleted by Simon's knife, than have to face his best friend in the next few minutes.

Simon got up and motioned for Daryl to follow. "Let's go, son. Jim needs some time with Blair." He gave Jim a compassionate look. "We'll be back by dark."

Jim stared into the fire, unable to meet Blair's bewildered gaze. "Thanks, Simon." A moment later he added quietly, "By the way, you were right. I waited too long."

After they'd gone, Blair scooted closer to Jim and fixed him with intent eyes. "What's going on, man? Something heavy's happening here, and I feel like I'm on the outside looking in."

"Give me a minute, Chief."

Jim poured himself a cup of steaming coffee, gripping the cup as though holding on to a lifeline. Why the hell had he put this off so long? And of all people to have tipped Blair off, why had it been Daryl? He was sure Simon had explained it all by now, and the kid must feel awful.

And just how was he supposed to tell Sandburg? He'd come close to rehearsing it in his mind several times, but he always pulled back. Talking about matters of the heart had never come easily for him, and this topic was brimming with emotional landmines.

Yet it had to be done - should already have been done. Jim took a long, steadying breath and straightened his shoulders.

"There's something I need to tell you, Chief. Something I should have told you before tonight. I'm so damned sorry."

********************

Blair winced at the pain in his best friend's face and the grief in his voice. Something was wrong here. Something was terribly, frighteningly wrong. It had to do with Steven, that much he'd figured out. And whatever it was, Jim was finding it almost impossible to talk about. The muscle in his jaw was setting new records, and his hands clinched his coffee cup so hard, they were white.

"You didn't know any of this at the time. You were so weak." Jim's voice faltered, and Blair rested a supportive hand on his arm.

"It's okay," he said quietly. "Take your time."

Jim stared steadily into the flames, almost mesmerized, and for a moment, Blair wondered if he might be in danger of a zone. Then the Sentinel continued his story.

"You were so sick. So very sick. I really didn't think things could get worse. But they did."

"I'd gone home to get a little rest. Sometime in the night Simon called. He told me to get to the hospital ER fast. I thought something had happened to you. It was all I could think about as I drove across town in the rain, that somehow you'd taken a turn for the worse while I was gone. But I couldn't figure out why you'd be in the ER."

Blair heard the fear in Jim's voice, as if he was reliving the events of that dark, rainy night. Blair knew Jim was aware of his presence beside him, but he sounded more like he was telling the story to himself, almost detached, nearly devoid of feeling. Yet, lying there below the surface like a predator waiting to strike down its victim, Blair caught a glimpse of powerful, surging emotion.

"It wasn't you. It was Steven."

Blair drew a quick intake of breath. "What...?"

"He was working late and crossing the street to his car. A drunk driver hit him. There was severe brain damage, both from the original injury and oxygen deprivation when he stopped breathing. The EMTs were able to bring him back, but he was on life support. The doctors gave no chance for a recovery. It was just a matter of time before his body gave out and even the machines wouldn't be able to keep him alive."

"Oh, God, Jim. I'm so sorry, man." Reaching out, Blair wrapped his arms around his friend. "That must have been devastating for you, losing Steven like that."

He hugged Jim tightly. "I'm sorry. What can I do? Why didn't you tell me?" Blair rested his forehead on Jim's shoulder and felt the strong muscles tremble slightly as Jim's voice rumbled in his ear.

"There's more."

Blair lingered for a moment before he pulled back. Gazing deeply into Jim's eyes, he asked, "How could there be more? You've been through enough already."

Jim held his gaze and Blair fell silent. There was something else Jim needed to tell him, something for which he had not yet been able to find words, and the secret lay hidden behind those haunted sky-blue eyes. Their eyes locked, the stare intensely soul-searching, until finally, with a surge of terrible comprehension, Blair understood.

The secret face of his donor that had haunted his dreams at last was revealed.

Blair's mouth fell open but no sound emerged. He breathed quickly. fighting to draw oxygen into his lungs. The heavy truth crushed the breath from his body, rendering Blair speechless...thoughtless...hopeless.

Mercifully, Jim kept talking. He hands found their way to cup Blair's cheeks, cradling his face gently. "Remember I told you that Incacha had come to me earlier? He told me that you would live but he also warned that it would be only as the result of a great sacrifice. I thought he was referring to the act of transplant itself, the fact that someone somewhere would have to die for you to live. I had no idea..."

Somewhere in the whirling whirlpool that his mind had become, Blair recognized that Jim's voice had become harder. "My father didn't get it. He was determined to keep Steven on those damned machines until the very end. I didn't want him to die, but he was already dead!"

Jim released Blair's face abruptly, turning back to stare into the flames. "We fought about it. I'm not sure exactly what – or who – might have changed his mind. I doubt it was me. But he finally agreed to sign the consent papers, and..." Jim took a long drink of coffee, through his stunned fog, Blair saw his hands shaking. "We let Steven go."

For a long time, the only sounds were those of the fire, the forest, and the night. Blair tried to speak then he swallowed hard. He tried again, and on the third attempt, succeeded. "Steven's heart...?"

Nodding, Jim shut his eyes. "Was your transplant."

Blair drew his knees up to his chin then buried his face in his arms. This was too much. It had been hard enough knowing that some stranger died and as a result, he was alive. To have seen the possible faces in his dreams was difficult enough...

To have it be his best friend's only brother...

A sob escaped from his constricted throat, a weak and helpless sound. Almost immediately, strong arms enveloped around his shoulders. Jim tugged gently, but Blair resisted, shaking his head. "No..."

"Chief?" Jim's voice was soft, nearly pleading. "Blair?"

Ellison pulled at him again, and this time, Blair yielded, allowing Jim to draw him back to rest against his broad chest. Cradling Blair as he might a wounded child, holding him just as he had so long ago in the P.D. garage when they'd both been ravaged by Golden, Jim rocked him slightly.

"It's okay, buddy. I should have told you after we got home. I was afraid it would happen like this, that it would slip out from someone else. Simon warned me, but I kept putting it off. I was an idiot. I'm so damned sorry."

Blair held tightly to the arms wrapped around him. The whole world was spinning out of control, and he was certain that if he let go of Jim, he would plummet into that downward spiral, never to reach the surface again. If he slipped from Jim's supportive embrace, he would be lost forever.

He shut his eyes against the pain, desperate to shut out the dizzying, sickening motion of the universe and held on even tighter to Jim. "How can you even look at me?" he whispered. "Doesn't it remind you every time about..."

Jim's arms tightened, and his breath was warm in Blair's ear. "No, Chief, honestly, it doesn't. When I look at you, all I remember is how damned thankful I am that you're here - with me. Yes, I mourn Steven. I wish I could get my hands on the bastard who killed him, just for five minutes. But what happened to him was not your fault. Do you hear that, Blair? It was not your fault. You did not kill Steven. Do you get that?" When Blair didn't – couldn't – reply, Jim whispered soothingly, "It's okay, Chief. You did nothing wrong. Steven would have died no matter what. If you hadn't received the transplant from him, either someone else would have or his heart would have died with him. That would have been a waste. He'd already signed a donor card years ago. He wanted to do this. I know him well enough to promise you that he would have been so proud that he'd been able to help you. He liked you, Chief. One of the last things he told me was that you're a great guy and you'd been good for me."

A gentle hand cradled his head. "He was right. You have been. I know this is hard. You need time to – what would Naomi say? – process it all. But the bottom line is that you're alive because Steven cared enough about others to sign that card, Chief. He didn't die because of you, but you're getting a chance at life because of him."

Jim's cheek came to rest against his hair. "Take some time to deal with this, then honor him the best way you can – by living your life to the fullest. I think that's all he would ask."

"How...how can you accept this so easily, Jim?"

Blair felt his ragged sigh. "It hasn't been easy. Trust me. But it could have been so much worse."

Blair shook his head against Jim's shoulder. "No. I don't believe that. How could it possibly have been any worse?"

"I could have lost you, too."

The tears trickled down Blair's cheeks, soaking into the soft flannel of Jim's shirt. "But he was your brother..."

Jim's strong arms tightened their protective embrace. "So are you. So are you."

********************

That night, Blair slept harder and deeper than he ever had. The next morning, Jim slipped from their tent, relieved that his friend was resting. The evening before had been stressful for them both, and the rest would do Sandburg good.

They were as quiet as possible while preparing the morning's breakfast. Daryl was subdued, not meeting Jim's eyes. They were halfway finished eating when Blair emerged from the tent, rubbing his eyes. After a quick trip to the woods, he sat down by the fire with his friends.

Jim poured him a cup of coffee and passed a plate of eggs, fried ham, and oatmeal. "Morning, Chief."

"Hey." Blair sipped his coffee.

"I'm so sorry!" Daryl blurted out. "I didn't know..."

Blair interrupted him and smiled for the first time. "It's okay, Daryl. I understand. Nothing's your fault."

"I should have told him already, Daryl," Jim added.

"Not your fault either, man. I can't even imagine how tough all this has been on you." Blair's smile was genuine, warm with understanding. "The last thing you wanted to do was upset me with the news about Steven. Not to mention how hard it would be just to tell me."

"Thanks, Chief." Jim was relieved to his core. When they'd retired the evening before, Blair had still been upset, not waiting for the Banks' return before moving slowly into the tent. Apparently the new day had brought new clarity about all that had happened in both their lives.

********************

Their return to Cascade was almost a welcome relief, a return to a safe, established routine. Over the first few days, Jim and Blair did not discuss all that had transpired. Jim figured Blair was 'processing'. As much as Blair tended to talk things out, if he wasn't pursuing the topic right now, Jim would wait for him to take the lead.

On the weekend following the fishing trip, Blair did just that. The late night movie they'd been watching had just ended, and Jim had switched the TV off. "Ready for bed, Chief?"

"In a minute." Blair had been stretched out on the floor, and he curled up to a sitting position facing Jim with his arms wrapped around his knees. "I've been thinking about all this since last weekend. Thinking about it a lot. I just want you to know that I'm okay with it. I'm so sorry about Steven, but you were right. That wasn't my fault. And if he'd signed a donor card, then eventually the heart would have gone to someone. I'm glad it went to me."

Blair smiled up at Jim. "I'm proud to be carrying part of both you and Steven with me, Jim. Maybe I don't deserve the sacrifices you made, but I'm so damned grateful to have another chance."

Jim spoke around the tightness of his throat. "It was pretty unbelievable the way it all worked out. The visit from Incacha kind of makes me wonder..." He wasn't sure how to finish his thought as he didn't exactly know what he was getting at himself.

"If the strings were being pulled from 'outside'?" Blair asked thoughtfully. "But that would mean that Steven died specifically to save me." He sounded almost frightened by that idea.

"No, that's not what I'm saying," Jim reassured him. "Just that someone was making the best decisions possible in really terrible circumstances. I don't like the idea that my strings are being pulled by anyone, but this sure isn't the first time it's happened."

Jim's mind flashed to the horror of the fountain and Incacha's instructions and guidance. His old Chopec friend had looked after them before. It wasn't much of a stretch to believe it had happened again. Blair's expression was contemplative. "There's so much about the mysticism surrounding Sentinels that we haven't even begun to understand. It's such a huge part of it all, and we've barely glimpsed the surface."

"Maybe we're not supposed to analyze it all, Chief, or understand it. Maybe it's best just to let it alone and trust that it will be there when we really need help."

"Maybe..." But Blair didn't sound convinced. It was too much his nature to probe and understand to accept something so fascinating at face value.

They fell silent for a time, and Jim pondered Blair's reluctance to accept at face value the guidance they were sometime given from beyond. Despite his own long-running issues with trust, when it came to things Sentinel, sometimes he found it easier to trust in what they could not see than did his Guide.

"Jim? Have you listened yet?"

Jim's body stiffened at the question, it took him so off-guard. He knew immediately what Blair was asking and frankly, he'd been wondering when the question would come. He had dreaded the asking.

"No," he admitted at last. "I haven't."

"Why? If you're really okay with this, then why haven't you listened?"

"It's an invasion of privacy," Jim bluffed.

"Bull!" Blair jumped from the floor to sit beside Jim. "I know you've listened to my heartbeat for years, man. We've already figured out that it's a connection between Guide and Sentinel. Maybe even a very necessary connection. At least it seems to be in our case. You've used my heartbeat to find me in dangerous situations and to anchor your senses when they've spiked. You need to be able to do this, Jim. For your own safety and for mine."

And for my own sanity, Jim admitted only to himself. He knew Sandburg was right, but what he was asking was so damned frightening. To listen to Blair's heartbeat and not hear his Guide's heart at all! Jim wasn't sure he could handle that.

But he remembered his resolve never to let Blair know if the sound of another heart beating within his Guide unnerved him. Jim's will had always been strong, and it did not fail him this time. He shrugged and said, "If you want, Chief, I'll listen."

Blair nodded. "I want you to listen. It's important for both of us."

As he so often did in matters of Sentinel and Guide, Blair took the lead. Raising his hands slowly, Blair slipped off his t-shirt. Obviously, the effort caused some pain to his still-healing incision. If he felt any discomfort with the intimacy he was initiating, Blair gave no sign.

Reaching out, he clasped Jim's wrist and drawing his hand to his own chest. "You must have been keeping the sound purposefully dialed out," Blair mused. "So I don't want you to do this all at once."

"First," he instructed, guiding Jim's hand to the center of his chest, "feel the scar."

Jim closed his eyes, focusing on his sense of touch. He'd seen the ugly scar that ran the length of Blair's chest, and the medic he'd once been had observed it from a professional distance. It was clean, as scars go, despite its enormous length. Perhaps the scar hadn't really bothered him as much as he might have thought, given that its necessity had saved his Guide's life.

Through touch, however, he came to know its surface intimately. With sensitive fingertips, the Sentinel felt every raised inch. He knew it must still be very tender, yet Blair did not flinch beneath Jim's hand. His chest hair had almost fully grown out from the shaving he'd received prior to surgery, and Jim felt the soft hairs tickle his palm. The scar was red and puffy, and its surface felt irregular to Jim's fingers. He had a sudden visual flash of the surgeon's scalpel cutting into his Guide's flesh, and with sheer strength of will, Jim forced it away.

He traced the scar from above Blair's belly to the top of his chest, slowly. Deliberately committing to memory every inch of healing flesh, the Sentinel came to know the changes to the exterior of his Guide.

It was time to know the interior changes as well.

Jim didn't open his eyes as Blair grasped his wrist again, trusting Blair to do what was right, what was necessary. Without speaking, Blair gently unfurled Jim's fingers and pressed his palm against the left side of his chest. "Don't use your hearing yet," he commanded in a whisper. "Feel my heart beating. Find its rhythm...its pulse."

Beneath his hand, a steady thrumming. Jim opened his sense of touch a little more, allowing the rhythm to flow into him until their two hearts beat in synch. His breathing slowed as he relaxed into this union with his Guide. Jim pressed firmly against Blair's chest, reassured to feel the strong, steady beat. This was Blair, and he trusted him implicitly.

The soft murmuring lulled Jim into an even deeper sense of relaxation. "All right, buddy, it's time to start opening your hearing – just a bit. See if you can turn up the dial one single notch. That's all. Not enough to hear my heartbeat yet. Just one notch on the dial, Jim, that's all. Feel the rhythm under your hand. It's strong. It's steady. You can count on that beat, you know. I'm not going anywhere now. You know that, right? I'm healthy, Jim. Strong and healthy again, thanks to you and Steven. There's nothing to be afraid of, buddy."

"Now another notch on the hearing dial. Just one more, Jim. Easy does it. Slow and easy. Dial it up a little more. Listen to all the other sounds around you. Hear the wind outside? Maybe the traffic going by? Birds singing in the trees? Listen to all that, Jim, nothing else. Not yet. Feel my heartbeat under your palm. Can you feel the pulse? Focus on that feeling. Now another click of the dial...just one more..."

With each notch forward on his imaginary dial, in a detached part of his mind, Jim was aware of an increasing sense of dread accompanied by a strange feeling of anticipation. It had been so long since he'd listened to Blair's heartbeat – a healthy heartbeat, that is. He had listened in the hospital, listened as his Guide's heart grew weaker, faltered, and nearly failed. Soon he would hear Blair's heartbeat again – or would he?

Would he hear his own brother's heartbeat? Would he even recognize Steven's heartbeat? They had been estranged for so long before their eventual reconciliation that Jim couldn't remember ever even listening to Steven's heart. Why would he, after all? Except for tracking criminals or listening for signs of deception, Jim never listened for the sound of any other heart than Blair's.

That single sound offered the Sentinel so much that he could not begin to put into thought. Security...reassurance...a sense of being grounded...and above all, a connection with the one person most important in his life – his Guide. Blair had never been able to ascertain if other Sentinels had used this particular method of connection with their Guides, but it didn't matter. For this particular Sentinel in this particular tribe, the sound of his Guide's heartbeat was essential.

It terrified Jim to think that sound might be lost to him forever.

"We're almost there, buddy," Blair's soft voice continued. "Just another click or two on the dial. I want you to take the dial into your own control now. Whenever you're ready, click it up enough to hear my heart. I'm right here, Jim. No matter what you hear, no matter how different it might sound, it's mine now. It will be the sound of my heart, and that sound will be there for you as long as you need it to be. You can rely on that, I promise you. You control the dial, man. You always have. Whenever you're ready, Jim..."

What if I'm never ready for this, Chief? What if I just don't move those two clicks and let things stay just the way they are right now? Not listening...not knowing. Would you know the difference? Would it really even make a difference?

But he knew that it would. Jim pressed more firmly on Blair's chest, anchoring himself physically to the younger man.

Slowly, deliberately, the Sentinel opened his hearing completely to his Guide.

Music flooded his soul. The rhythm of it merged with the pulse beneath his hand and soared. No symphony, no mere concerto or overture, had ever sounded so magnificent. The music was as stirring as a sounding trumpet...as sweet as a singing flute...as stirring as a crying cello.

It was the sound of Sandburg's heart.

He heard the sound of laughter and realized it was his own. For a moment, he thought it was somehow raining indoors before realizing that the wetness on his cheeks was from his own tears.

He opened his eyes to look right into those of his Guide. "It's really you," he whispered. "It sounds exactly the same. I can't believe it. How...?"

Blair's eyes were wet and full. "I don't know. Maybe a new heart falls into the body rhythms of its new host. Maybe..." A slow smile spread over his face. "I don't know, and I don't think it matters. Do you?"

Jim realized his hand was still pressing against Blair's chest, but he made no move to let it fall. "No. It doesn't. Not in the least."

"You're okay?"

The Sentinel nodded. "And you?"

Blair's hand covered Jim's, pressing the Sentinel's palm even more firmly against his chest and that much closer to his beating heart. "I'm fine. I've got the best, remember? All that Sandburg magic, mixed in with a double dose of Ellison. That's a pretty impressive mixture, don't you think?"

Jim laughed, and unable to resist, pulled his friend into a firm hug. "It sure is, Chief. It certainly is. Think you can handle it?"

"Oh, yeah, man. I'm up for it."

For a long minute, the hug held in silence. Then Blair drew back slowly and found Jim's eyes. "If I haven't told you this, I should have."

He paused for a moment. "Thank you. You gave me the gift of life, Jim, at no small cost to your own health. And when I think what you lost when Steven died – not to mention what your dad went through - I've got to talk to him sometime soon, y'know – it's almost too much to comprehend."

Dark blue eyes stared into pale blue. "You've been my life for a very long time, y'know? Now you've literally given me my life. That's...that's a pretty heavy connection, Jim. The kind of thing that..." His voice faltered, and his gaze fell.

"The kind of thing that connects people for a lifetime? That makes them...brothers?" Jim said softly.

"Yeah," Blair agreed, looking up again. "That and a hell of a lot more that I can't even put into words."

Jim grinned wryly. "Words are highly overrated, Chief. I'd think hanging around me might have taught you that by now."

Sandburg laughed, shaking his head. "Oh, man. I so needed that! Laughter really is the best medicine, you know."

Standing up, Jim reached his hand down for Blair and pulled him gently to his feet. "I'm hungry, Junior. Could you go for some Italian?"

"Yeah. Most definitely. Hey, Jim?" Their hands still clasped, Blair squeezed hard.

The Sentinel waited.

"I will make Steven proud. I promise."

For a moment, Jim couldn't answer. Then he smiled softly at the younger man who meant so much to him and who now carried a part of himself within, along with a part of his own brother. "No doubt about that, Chief. No doubt at all."

Finis...

********************

Last year almost 800 men, women, and children died while awaiting a heart transplant. During the same period, 2,300 hearts were successfully transplanted. Transplant is only a temporary solution, giving most recipients between 10 - 15 additional years of life but that number is increasing with medical advances.

Along with hearts, a donor can provide corneas, kidneys, and other organs and tissues for those in need. Six years ago, I received two donated ACL ligaments in my knees after a car wreck. My recovery was much faster than those having the same procedure using tissue from their own bodies. Very minor compared to needing a heart, kidney, or cornea, but I'm very grateful to the generous person who donated my ACLs, making my life so much easier.

Transplants hold the hope of a miracle for those waiting. Each of us has the potential to provide that miracle for someone else.

Consider becoming an organ donor. Become someone's miracle.

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